Sure, the disco generation might have grown up with ABBA hits, but quieter ballads from the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!” are striking poignant notes for the mothers in the cast of Pioneer Theatre Company’s new production opening next week.
As ABBA fans know, the jukebox musical centers on Donna (Coleen Sexton), a middle-aged single mother, as her best friends help her prepare for her daughter’s wedding. Sophie, (Kathryn Brunner), her free-spirited daughter, invites three of Donna’s former boyfriends to attend, hoping to find her father and invite him to walk down the aisle.
Wedding arrangements remind Donna that her little girl has grown up. “Schoolbag in hand, she leaves home in the early morning, waving goodbye, with an absent-minded smile,” Donna sings nostalgically in the second-act song, “Slipping Through My Fingers.”
In rehearsal, those lyrics offer rich parallels for New York-based director/choreographer Patricia Wilcox and Utah actor Mary Fanning Driggs, as two of their children are preparing for college graduations.
“I feel that ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ thing,” says Driggs as her last child, her sixth, entered high school this year. “It’s a weird stage of life to be in, after so many years of parenting.”
“You have your memory of packing their lunchbox,” Wilcox agrees. “And you’re getting them ready for a dance, and then getting them ready for graduation.”
And then you’re preparing to let them go, whether you’re playing a middle-aged mother in a musical singing a bittersweet ballad, or a mother working in the performing arts. Like mothers everywhere, Wilcox and Driggs and other mothers at the theater company have spent years juggling schedules to balance mothering and professional work.
For Wilcox, juggling means leaving Pioneer Theatre Company after the last “Mamma Mia!” dress rehearsal — missing opening night — to make it back to New York for her younger son’s university graduation ceremonies.
For Driggs, who plays Rosie, one of Donna’s best friends, juggling means she’ll miss her daughter’s graduation ceremonies from the culinary program at Utah Valley University. Plenty of other family members will be there, and her daughter has told Driggs she’s fine with that choice.
An actor works when other people are off, Driggs has told her kids over the years, which means their mother has missed many holiday events and family parties.
For artistic director Karen Azenberg, juggling means scheduling Pioneer Theatre Company’s shows around her two children’s university schedules. She remembers the early years, too, when she was chasing toddlers in airports and hotel rooms. “Think toilet paper unrolled endlessly,” she says.
She remembers a phase when her son, Alex (who just turned 21), was a toddler. She was working in Minneapolis in December, and her young son took the opportunity to toss socks and shoes out of his stroller as she carted him to childcare on her way to rehearsal.
Azenberg also recalls claiming the maestro’s dressing room for a nanny and her then-baby daughter, Emelia (now 17), while she was directing “West Side Story” at the Virginia Opera. The borrowed dressing room became the place where Azenberg could breastfeed during rehearsal breaks.
At 12 months, her son had already tap danced with Carol Lawrence, who originated the role of Maria in “West Side Story.” By age 10, Alex had traveled to more than a dozen states with Azenberg for work.
She was probably naive as a young theater mother, Azenberg says now, despite her upbringing as her family accompanied her father on the road as he managed touring shows. “Because who wouldn’t think that they could take a 6-week-old-baby to the Berkshires, then California, then back to New York and then on tour?” she says. “Who needs sleep anyway?”
For her kids, a crazy schedule based around rehearsals and opening nights seemed normal. “They probably wouldn’t have known what to do with two parents at home every night,” she says, as their father is a professional stage manager. On the other hand, a more flexible daytime schedule made Azenberg a great candidate to volunteer for elementary school field trips.
Like Azenberg, Wilcox says out-of-town jobs offered the opportunity to take her two sons on the road before they entered school.
As they got older, she and her husband, Broadway actor John Schiappa, juggled jobs so that one parent was always at home in New York City. “Our balance was to give them as much of a home base and a schedule as we could,” she says.
As a theater mother, Wilcox says she relied on the mute button on her phone during work conference calls when she was tending her boys. “I kept them as quiet as I could, and then I would say what I would have to say, and then the mute button would go on,” she says with a laugh.
As a theater mother, Driggs jokes in a phone interview, she relies on a Roomba vacuum.
In one story to mark her juggling years, Driggs remembers racing home from Pioneer Theatre on her dinner break. On her way, she stopped to buy four or five replacement pacifiers for a fussy baby. At home, she started dinner, then escorted an older daughter to her violin lesson. As she rushed back to rehearsal, she laughed about what she didn’t have time to fit in: sitting down to eat herself.
Driggs says her husband jokes that she has to assign five people to fill in for her when she is off performing. This week, for example, while she is in “Mamma Mia!” rehearsals, she has to call home to remind someone to take the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks sign to her daughter’s orchestra concert.
For Utah actor Megan Shenefelt, juggling means scheduling around her husband’s job or arranging a place to drop off her 3½-year-old daughter, Sovay, with her mother. “A chain of mothers” is how Shenefelt imagines it.
Shenefelt, a 2015 University of Utah graduate, grew up dancing to ABBA songs, as her mother and aunt loved the musical. As a teenager, she saw “Mamma Mia!” on Broadway on one of her first trips to New York City. Back then, she thought of the show as a party.
Now that she’s a mother and performing in the ensemble for this production, Shenefelt appreciates how the story depicts the unbreakable bond between a mother and her daughter.
That relationship is something of an unusual focus for a musical. “Mamma Mia!” celebrates women of a certain age, while the ABBA songs seem to appeal across generations, the director says.
In Salt Lake City for her first day of rehearsals, Wilcox hired a young female Uber driver for a trip to the grocery store. When Wilcox mentioned why she was in town, the driver exclaimed: “I love that musical. It’s about my generation.”
“Here’s the key for this show — if I were going to put it in one word — it’s about hope,” Wilcox says. “These women are funny and feisty. It shows us the possibility of how we can lead a great life, not a fairy-tale life, but a rich and fulfilling life.”
A rich and fulfilling life, that is, that might require the kind of juggling that theater moms and moms everywhere have been doing on and offstage for years.
Pioneer Theatre Company produces “Mamma Mia!,” the feel-good ABBA jukebox musical set on a sun-washed Greek island.
When • May 11-26; 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $42-$64 in advance; $5 more day of show; half-price tickets for K-12 students on Monday and Tuesday; at 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org