Toronto
2 min

The Winner Takes It All

In ABBA, cynics meet their Waterloo

VOULEZ-VOUS JOUER LE GUITAR. Lee MacDougall is having too much fun with the Mamma Mia material. Credit: Xtra files

Even if you don’t care for the clean, highly-engineered and very catchy sound of the Swedish singing group ABBA, there’s been no escaping their seemingly endless chain of hits from the mid-1970s on.



Then came the wave of revivals spurred by Priscilla Queen Of The Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, films where the characters’ love of ABBA tunes provide both plot points and nostalgia for audiences.



Now comes Mamma Mia – a North American production of a hit London, UK show that’s been sold out for a year – inspired by songs like “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo” and, of the course, the title number. The local production by the Mirvishes stars Louise Pitre and Mary Ellen Mahoney.



Canadian actor and playwright Lee MacDougall, who also has a starring role, is quick to correct a common misperception – Mamma Mia is not about the band ABBA, but tells a tale that uses their music.



“It’s about a woman who lives on a Greek island and her daughter is getting married; the daughter invites three old boyfriends of the mother to the wedding. The whole thing’s a romantic comedy to find out which one is the father.”



MacDougall plays one of the boyfriends. Is he the father? “It’s a secret and a mystery; to reveal it would ruin a moment at the end of the show.”



MacDougall, familiar to fans of early John Greyson films as the lead in the little-seen The Making Of Monsters, is frequently cast in musicals and dramas across Canada, including shows at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals.



Reports from the UK have audiences leaving Mamma Mia singing ABBA songs euphorically, as if high on drugs. MacDougall knows people will love the show because they already know the material. “But the other thing is the way [writer] Catherine Johnson has woven the music in.



“You get the heartbreaking moment in the story with the mother, who’s lying on the bed, crying. One of her female friends turns to her and says, ‘Ch-chi-quita, tell me what’s wrong,’ and it just makes you laugh, the way they’ve used a song that you know and made it actually fit cheekily into the story. Happens all the way through; it’s very clever.”



MacDougall, 42, grew up in the “butch hockey-and-mining town” of Kirkland Lake in Northern Ontario and studied microbiology in Toronto before enrolling in Ryerson’s Theatre School. He turned to writing as answer to downtime between jobs.



“When you’re 38 you start to think the clock’s ticking here, I can’t watch Oprah day after day.” His hit play High Life was based on drug addicts he had lived with in Halifax. The premiere production starred Brent Carver and won MacDougall a Dora theatre award in 1996; it has since had many productions here and abroad. He’s now at work on his fourth play.



MacDougall lives in Stratford with his lover of 10 years, Tim French, a theatre director and choreographer. After 15 years in Toronto, MacDougall says, “I was getting tired of the big city. Every time I went away to work I found I enjoyed myself more living in a small town.”



He and French settled in Stratford. “It’s an hour and a half [from Toronto], it’s beautiful and it’s cheap: you can buy a house in Stratford for a hundred thousand.”



MacDougall has never bought an ABBA album; his own tastes run to jazz and classical. He says he was amazed at the first rehearsals because “I knew all the songs! Not word for word, but there wasn’t a song in the show I wasn’t familiar with – that’s how all-pervasive this music was in the late-70s and ’80s.”