The leap from stage to screen was a challenging one, not least of all because it was Andersson’s desire that every actor should perform his or her own vocals. Musical director Martin Lowe, who joined the Mamma Mia! team in 1999, recalls, “It set the bar quite high. Having worked on the stage show, I knew what was required of performers to deliver the songs. The songs demand a great deal of skill and style.”
Lowe was present at cast auditions. “Ultimately, I was hired to serve Benny’s music,” he offers. “I was not about to put my name to something that might compromise that.” During the casting process, Lowe worked in Stockholm with Andersson and the original ABBA band to record the score for the film, which involved using the cast of the Swedish stage production of Mamma Mia! to record the backing vocals for the big ensemble numbers in the film such as “Voulez-Vous” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”
Lowe’s job gained momentum as the cast was confirmed. He worked with key cast to find each of their keys on phrasing and to give them confidence before going into the studio to record. To nail the best performance, Lloyd took advantage of different song recording options: both prerecording the vocal tracks so that the actors had to lip sync to their own performance, and having the actors sing live on set to a guide track.
Explains executive producer Mark Huffam of the process: “The tradition in musicals is to do a prerecord and then mime. Because we have such fabulous actors in this film, they were given the opportunity to sing live in the more organic numbers. We left the option open, and we’ve done it both ways. We’ve done a lot of playback on all the bigger dance numbers, but on some of the more personal songs, we’ve done them live.”
The cast appreciated the choice. Says Streep: “Working with Benny and Björn on recording the songs was very interesting, as I did it in advance of really knowing who my character was or what her voice was. I found, as we shot the film and recorded live, the voice I was singing in was quite different to the one I was hearing in my earphone. So the voice evolved, and it was great to have the option of doing it live too, as the energy and the physicality of the acting performance dictates how the song is delivered in a way I couldn’t have known when we first recorded it.”
Firth agrees: “It’s tough to sing a song before you establish a character; a song in a musical is not a disembodied thing. It’s part of the narrative and, as such, the performance has to be right for the character. You have to bring the performance to the song or the song to the performance.”
Brosnan commends of his musical director: “Martin instilled such confidence in me. He came out to California; we set up in my office one day and just started banging out the songs. For the next few months, I just listened to them day in and day out, driving the kids to school,” he continues. “When it came time to record, I walked into the studios and there’s Benny and Björn, and there’s Phyllida and Judy…and it’s show time. As for my singing, they just said, ‘Great.’ They liked what I did, and it was very easy. I wasn’t alone because I had Stellan and Colin right there, equally terrified.”
“I think I’m most proud of Dominic,” Lowe laughs of the young actor who admits he had “moments of panic” before meeting with his musical director. “He worked so hard. We literally went through each song line by line, and I tried to show him how to sing like a pop singer.”
Fellow countryman Stellan Skarsgård also enjoyed his experience working with the men of ABBA. Of Ulvaeus and Andersson he says: “They’re so calm and very Swedish. Here are two other fellow Swedes just standing there, and they were very nice and encouraging, and they just let me sing on.”
Amanda Seyfried also had Lowe, Ulvaeus, Andersson and Lloyd present during her recordings, but it couldn’t have been more of a freeing experience. “It was so exciting and surreal to work with them. They didn’t direct me too much,” she says. “I had a tone and sound they liked, so they just let me be free with it.”
Lowe points out that many of the songs Seyfried has to sing for the film are tricky, such as the complicated phrasing in parts of “I Have a Dream.” “The line ‘I believe in angels’ falls on a break and sits in an awkward place in the song,” he provides. “Some women at the audition just couldn’t hit it. Thank the Lord we found Amanda, who just came in and did it. When she walked out of her audition, the camera operator and the sound guy just went, ‘This is Sophie.’ And they hadn’t spoken all day!”
Adds director Lloyd: “Amanda makes you feel utterly sympathetic and protective towards her, right from the get-go of the movie. She’s instantly lovable, and that’s crucial about Sophie.”
It was an exhausting process for all the cast. The filmmakers took off their hats to the performers for the work that they did. “ABBA music is complex music,” suggests Rita Wilson.
“The songs are hard to sing, very melodic and have gorgeous harmonies. It doesn’t become tiring listening to them. There is an exuberance and an unself-consciousness to the music. The songs allow you to act giddy, goofy, sweet, young and silly—just as they are wrapped in deceptively complex melodies.”