The story of Cinderella isn’t often believed in circles that make their living from producing artificial Cinderellas. 24-year-old Lisa Stokke from the Arctic town of Tromsø went straight from school to the leading role in the musical Mamma Mia in London’s West End. That kind of thing only happens when reality becomes a fairy tale.
At the moment, Lisa Stokke’s story has just as much to do with Abba. Twenty-five years after winning the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, Abba is experiencing a renaissance. Not that Abba’s music ever disappeared, it has just not been quite comme il faut to like it. Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvæus’ three-minute compositions have certainly stood the test of time. Abba is up there with the Beatles and Elvis in terms of popularity and sales figures, and they have long since written musical history in terms of both composition and production; this is the standard repertory for the next century. Since the group was dissolved in ’82, Andersson and Ulvæus have written two musicals, Chess and Kristina från Duvemåla. Mamma Mia is not their work, but it uses twenty-seven Abba songs in a dramatic setting.
No young Norwegian girl has ever made her début in a main role on the West End before. It is very unusual for a foreigner even to be considered. Firstly you have to have no accent and secondly you have to satisfy numerous other requirements. When, after her eighth audition, Lisa Stokke finally got the part and co-producer Ulvæus wanted to know a bit more about her, he exclaimed: “Blimey, are you Norwegian?”.
Some dreams are made to be realised. Lisa Stokke studied music at school and wanted to star in musicals. After finishing her exams, she reached the final of a big TV talent contest and had to sing Cabaret in a direct broadcast in front of an 8,000-strong audience. With a bad cold and a runny nose, she came third and promised herself that she would show them all one day. She was among the first students to be accepted by the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA), Paul McCartney’s so-called Fame School, and studied there for three years. She loved every second of it. Imagine being able to learn about the thing you most want to do! The school is down-to-earth and realistic, since it also emphasises what students must expect when they enter working life and the tough world of the theatre.
It is probably less risky to climb Everest than it is to produce a musical in London. The risk is multiplied many times if you’re not British. Mamma Mia is about a mother (Siobhan McCarthy) and her daughter (Lisa Stokke) during the 24 hours before the daughter’s wedding. The daughter has invited three men who, according to the mother’s 19-year-old diaries, could all be the father she has never met, but who she so dearly wants to give her away. Abba’s hit parade leads to complications, irony and a happy ending. For her musical theatre, Phyllida Lloyd, best known as an opera director, has chosen simple, clear tableaux. While the music plays the main role, the musical is also a vital springboard for new talents.
Lisa Stokke plays the sweet, modest daughter who is facing the most important choice of her life and is unhappy about not having a father. There is little bravura in the role – that is the prerogative of the strong mother figure – but she is almost always on stage as a link between scenes and actors. You have to know something about the difficult art of innuendo not to overplay that kind of role.
Considering she has musical history personified in the form of Paul McCartney and the Abba boys as her godfathers, Lisa Stokke is blessedly down-to-earth. All she wanted was for the première to be over “so that we can get down to work”. She will be able to work in peace until March 2000. After that, she won’t have to ask her Mamma Mia about anything because the next audition – and role – will be there, waiting for her.