“Knowing Me, Knowing You”
Get to know some of the creative masterminds making the Ordway Original Mamma Mia! into an unforgettable, all-new production. Rod Kaats, the Ordway’s new producing artistic director, sat down with director Martha Banta and choreographer Mitch Sebastian to talk all things ABBA and the Ordway.
RK: It’s so great to have both of you here. Martha, you’re based in New York, and Mitch, you’re from London. Mitch, as a performer you were in Cats, Starlight Express, and Les Misérables in London. And Martha, you were the Associate Director of the Broadway production of Rent…
MB: … That’s right. And I worked on the touring production of Rent, and I worked on the Broadway and touring production of Mamma Mia! for over 15 years.
MS: I just have to say that it’s wonderful to work with Martha on Mamma Mia! because of her long history with the show. She knows it intimately. And yet, from our very first conversation, she made it clear that we were doing a totally new production and that she wanted to start fresh.
MB: And I was glad that Mitch hadn’t worked on the show before because he comes to it with new eyes. I’m excited to generate something new together, that’s not the Broadway or touring version….
RK: Right. Mamma Mia! but crafted in a new way. But I think it can be hard sometimes to understand the difference between shows we produce here at the Ordway, like this production of Mamma Mia! which we call an “Ordway Original,” and a touring production of that same show.
MB: This production will be new. It won’t be a copy or replica of the Broadway production. It will have a new concept, with new set and costume designs…
RK: … But the story and music are the same.
MB: Any production of Mamma Mia! will always have those iconic ABBA songs and have the original story about a young woman trying to understand her future by looking back into the past. But like any really good story, this one can be told in more than one way. The way we are telling the story in this Ordway Original production is unique and special.
MS: Like a tailor makes a custom-made suit. It fits perfectly, because it was made for you.
MB: Exactly. Or like a meal your mother made from scratch. The recipe may be the same, but the ingredients are fresh.
MS: I’m loving this metaphor. So, if an Ordway Original is a home cooked meal, then a touring production is like going out to a restaurant for dinner?
RK: And both are fun, but the combination of the two is especially nourishing.
MB: No more talk about food! One of the most important things that makes this production unique is the contributions from the talented local artists, craftspeople and technicians, and of course the performers. I was so thrilled to find out that the Twin Cities is overflowing with talent!
MS: I agree. This past winter, when we were casting here in Saint Paul and these incredible actors walked into the room, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t in London or New York.
MB: I remember thinking in auditions that if the show were still running in New York, that I could have cast the Broadway production here in Saint Paul.
RK: This is the first time for both of you working at the Ordway and in the Twin Cities. What’s that like?
MS: Well, it was very cold! But the people are always warm and open-hearted.
MB: Yes, everyone here has been fantastic, and I think I can speak for Mitch too when I say how welcomed we’ve felt.
MS: I’ve enjoyed learning about the history of Saint Paul and I am so impressed with the architecture here. And the facilities at the Ordway are really world-class.
MB: Not really knowing the community until now, I’ve been amazed to learn about the incredible support for the arts here in Minnesota. The benefits of that support are tangible — so much high-quality and diverse theater happens here. It’s as if the Mississippi River flows through the Twin Cities the way the lanes of Broadway flow into Times Square and the theater district in New York.
RK: Another great metaphor. But you are so right: while there is always more to do, supporting the arts is clearly part of the ethos here, making it a wonderful place to live and work. And all the good work must be why the Ordway audiences are so sophisticated. But as you both said, they are also very warm and supportive.
MB: Well, we plan to get that audience up on their feet and dancing in the aisles!
RK: I’m counting on it! Speaking of dancing. Mitch, what have you and Martha discussed about the choreography for the ABBA music?
MS: Martha and I agree that the dancing should feel exuberant, but natural. As she just said, we want the audience to feel like they can get up and dance. So that means the characters are real people, dancing like you or I would, because they are having such a good time in the sun.
MB: Yes. In Mamma Mia! the audience will recognize themselves. Sure, it’s a musical and it’s playful, but for me, the authenticity of the characters is very important. Ultimately, this is a mother/daughter story. And that’s what is so unique about this musical — the main characters are women, and it’s about their relationships to each other.
MS: Well Rod, I guess you and I are just the accessories. It’s Martha’s world…
RK: … we men just live in it.
MB: Why do you think they call it Mamma Mia!?
Mamma Mia! will perform July 17-August 5 in the Ordway Music Theater. Tickets are available on the Mamma Mia! performance page or by phone at 651.224.4222.