When it first opened on Broadway in 2001, Mamma Mia! seemed an unlikely addition to the musical theater canon. A sweet story based around the songs of the Swedish sensation ABBA, Mamma Mia! was viewed somewhat suspiciously by some who didn't realize that jukebox musicals - stories centered around already beloved radio hits rather than original songs - were the wave of the future and would launch an entirely new and unexpected influx of popular musicals.
ABBA's songwriters, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, may not be the next Rodgers and Hammerstein, but it turns out Broadway audiences (not to mention audiences around the world) were more than ready to embrace Mamma Mia! Running from 2001 until 2015, Mamma Mia! is now Broadway's eighth longest-running musical in its rich history, putting it in some pretty exalted company. Having toured the world multiple times over the years, the current run which visits the Embassy Theatre later this month is the show's farewell tour, making it a pretty special experience for the cast charged with ending the show on a high note. One of those cast members, Max Ehrlich, who plays the best man of the show's groom, wasn't entirely familiar with the show itself, though he certainly knew the music.
"I had never seen it, so after the audition when I got the call back, I watched the movie so I'd at least know the story," says Ehrlich. "But my parents raised me on classic rock, so I knew most of the ABBA songs. My mom basically made me be an ABBA fan, not that I'm complaining or am unhappy about it."
If anything, being in Mamma Mia! has added to his appreciation for the music.
"I think I always just thought of the songs as nice bubblegum music, but when you start really singing and listening to the songs, you realize that they had some really rockin' numbers and the ballads and disco. They really had a lot of different music."
Ehrlich has a considerable amount of experience already, but he says it's largely due to the fact that he's always known what he's wanted to do and has pursued it enthusiastically in his home state of Virginia.
"I always knew I wanted to be in movies since I was a kid. My elementary school did plays, as did my middle school, so I was in plays all the way through high school. Doing theater is my passion."
Having studied acting at Virginia Commonwealth University, Ehrlich still hopes to eventually add film to his resum?, but he has already found significant success on the stage, winning roles in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and the Richmond Ballet production of The Nutcracker. He enjoys many aspects of his current show and shares a couple of his favorite moments from the nightly performances.
"The scene with 'Does Your Mother Know' is always fun every night. It's a really great song, and it's just fun to go out there and dance and have fun with the others in the scene. Even when we were first rehearsing that song, I was already having a good time. The wedding scene and finale are fun too because it's great to have my whole cast together on stage interacting and reacting. It's really why I enjoy doing the show so much, because the cast is so much fun and it's just great when we can all be together like that. We just get to act and dance and have a ball."
This farewell production is providing an unusually long schedule for that cast. With rehearsals starting in September and performances starting in October, the run concludes on July 30 with a performance in St. Louis. In the weeks leading up to that finale, Ehrlich says the show will visit some major cities including Boston and Atlanta, as well as a stop in Richmond where he expects to see his family and friends in the audience. He expects a big turnout for the show as its long run winds down.
"I know they're hoping to bring back all the other performers who have been involved with the show over the years and have them see the last performance. It's really exciting to be part of this farewell."
He also knows the audiences are coming with a determination to enjoy the show one more time. He says some have told him that they saw the show 10 years ago but need to see it before it's retired. He thinks that loyalty and devotion to the show and its music explain the show's popularity.
"Before I saw the show, I knew people had different opinions about it. But since I've been in it, I've realized how universal the show really is and how many generations are touched by it. We get audiences of all ages who come to see the show and tell us how moving the story is to them. Even people who may come to the show with a predetermined opinion can't help but leave with a smile on their face. I really didn't realize how fun the show was going to be, and I enjoy all the other cast members and the music."
With several months of Mamma Mia! ahead of him, it's a bit early for him to start lining up his next job, but he's clearly content with this long run and the opportunity to play Eddie for many more nights around the country.
"It's unusual to have a run this long, and we only get three weeks off, but I don't mind because I'm having so much fun. Eddie is kind of a fun troublemaker, always trying to get something going and finding various hijinks and planning the bachelor party. It's a great role, and I have a great time working with everyone every night."