The Mamma Mia! super trouper who keeps the show on the road
PUBLISHED: 12:39 06 March 2017 | UPDATED: 12:39 06 March 2017
Company manager Ben Jefferson is the backstage go-to-man whose name of the game is keeping everything running smoothly.
Taking a show the size of Mamma Mia! out on the road is a huge undertaking and a little akin to a small village going on holiday.
Venues on the international tour have ranged from basketball pitches to ice rinks and even a bull ring when the show was in Lisbon, and now this hugely-successful production is turning its attention to cities around the UK.
As company manager of the UK Tour, which started in Bristol in March last year, Ben Jefferson is the man charged with keeping everything on course while the show is at Norwich Theatre Royal.
He has been with Mamma Mia! on and off over a seven and a half year period, in the West End, on the international tour and now on home turf.
“It’s a great feel-good musical,” he said. “No matter where you go to in the world, there is such a good reaction from the audience, which makes the cast happy which means they make my life easier. It’s just such a fun show.”
Ben explained: “This is the international tour which has come off the road for two years to do a UK tour, so it is great for us to be home for a couple of years, and it’s great fun. It does become like a family.”
He prefers being out on tour to being in the West End. “I’ve done both. When you are in the West End, it does become a bit more like a day job, a nine-to-five ‘Bye, see you tomorrow!’ job. But when you are on tour, people are away from home, so they tend to socialise more. It’s an old cliché but it’s absolutely true. It is a family with me as the grandfather!”
As company manager and head of the ‘family’ on tour, Ben is responsible for the well-being of the cast and crew of the show, ensuring their arrival at the venue, making travel and housing arrangements, dealing with their payments and any disputes and generally making sure everyone is well and happy. He is also the direct contact between the management team and the actors, and once at a venue he will set up a temporary office usually close to the green room.
There are 56 people in total travelling with the show - 30 in the cast, seven in the band and 19 in the creative and backstage team, from wardrobe, wigs, carpentry and stage management to lighting and sound, plus Ben and the resident director.
He had been looking forward to the Norwich stop-over, having not been to the city for a good few years: “Norwich is beautiful – it’s a beautiful theatre and great city. It’s one of our longer sit-downs in 2017. We did Birmingham for 10 weeks in 2016, but Norwich is our second longest sit-down in 2017.”
The show has now been seen by 60 million people worldwide in 50 productions, has premiered in 440 major cities worldwide zig-zagging from one end of the planet to the other and grossing over two billion dollars at the box office in the process. It became the first Western musical ever to be staged in Mandarin in the People’s Republic of China and even tours the Caribbean on a cruise ship.
“We tour absolutely everything with us,” Ben said. “So we have our own washing machines, coat hangers, light bulbs, everything. We also have an extensive electrics department, because when we are on the road out of the country if a lamp breaks we have to be able to mend it, so we carry lots of spares, many more than most shows do.
“We are quite adaptable. We know our limitations and our production manager is brilliant. He knows that if he has a certain amount of space we can fit and we can work. The smallest area we have played in the past was a conference room in Kuala Lumpa a couple of years ago – it was very tight, very uncomfortable. That was only a week fortunately.”
Standing stage left with Ben, he explains how the sound and wardrobe departments have set up camp in the wings. “Our wardrobe department is here so cast can do all their quick costume changes. There is a quick area change for boys; the girls are also here and the dads too, and then we have the Dynamos quick change on the side of the stage.
“Some of the places we go to, they don’t have time to get back to their dressing rooms, so we build a wardrobe village so they can come and do their quick changes and they can also come and hang out between scenes. There have been many configurations of quick changes over the years. In an ideal world, it would be just behind the set, set up in a line.”
He gives a peek into the girls’ mobile wardrobe which contains beautiful female guest outfits for the wedding scene. Wardrobe tends to have a stock of wedding costumes and they add a few new ones each year.”
All the costumes in the show are bright and reflect the holiday atmosphere of the storyline. There is also a whole section swimwear for the famous ‘flipper dance’ to Lay All Your Love On Me, but the wonderful Dynamos’ lycra outfits and finale costumes are kept out of sight to retain the surprise.
Surprisingly, even after those seven and a half years of being wed to Mamma Mia!, Ben still hasn’t yet managed to see the show the whole way through.
“I’ve got to the stage where when I am in my office listening to it over the show relay I don’t hear it until something goes wrong. You do get plagued with it when you are out of the theatre because ABBA is played everywhere – in lifts and shops, anywhere you can think of – but it’s such good music you can’t possibly hate it anyway.”
If he had the chance to swap his backstage role to step out into the spotlight, then his favourite character would be Donna’s larger-than-life friend Rosie: “She’s great fun. She’s a good laugh. I think you could get away with a man in drag playing that role!” he laughed.
• Mamma Mia!, Norwich Theatre Royal, until March 25, various times, £49.50-£8, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk