In March, Susie McMonagle joined a host of others in replacing the principal cast for the five-time Tony-nominated musical Mamma Mia!, which returns to the Fox Theatre on June 10-15 – just in advance of the movie version starring Meryl Streep that hits theaters July 18. McMonagle plays Donna, a Greek isle bar owner who mulls over the three potential fathers of her daughter on the eve of the 20-year-old's wedding while ripping through ABBA's songbook.
How dare you steal Meryl Streep's thunder?
I know it's hard to steal Meryl's thunder, but it's gotta be live, and Meryl can't do it live. [Pauses.] She's stealing my thunder, is what's going on!
How many shows have you done?
I've been doing it since March 2, so multiply that by eight times a week and that's how many. All the leads are new. We all went into rehearsal together, on Feb. 1 in New York City, and replaced all the leads. Which is great because sometimes you're a replacement and try to do what the other one did, and this was an opportunity for us to create something new within the confines of the script – much more than I was expecting. The director, Martha Banta, is very in tune with people doing their own approach to the role. Nobody wants to feel they're doing some else's show. Even though the show has been done for many years, you want to put your own stamp on it. My Donna may be more tomboy than others'. Ultimately, the reason I got cast is I bring my own personality to the part. To be able to do that without thinking, 'Oh, the other person does it this way.' Who wants to do that?
Talk about how the plot relates to the songs.
I've gotta say, I think it's really well done. The way that they weave the story with the dialogue, that's why it's a success. Every once in a while there'll be a transition that's, "Oooh," but the audience just rolls with it. I hesitate to use the word brilliant, but it's really well done and that's why it's a success.
There are some people out there – OK, I'm one of them – who believe the plot is about as contrived as it could be. Have you ever at any point thought, "Wow, this music is great to sing, but the plot does seem a little silly at times?"
There is a challenge. At the end, when I have one of the lines that goes – and sometimes it'll get a laugh from the audience, which is OK with me – with Sam, I have to say, "I don't want to talk about this now!" and it goes right into "The Winner Takes it All." But it's all about the music. We're not doing major drama up there. This is a feel-good musical. A guilty pleasure for a lot of people, many who don't want to admit they're ABBA fans. That was me when I saw it. I thought, "This is going to be dumb." And then I was like, "Oh, yeah, bring it on!"
With the success of the Broadway show and all that disco nostalgia, is ABBA no longer a guilty pleasure? Is it a great band?
I think it's a great band. There's still some guilty pleasure, though. And that's just the style of music. But my 14-year-old son, who is a music snob, he listens to it. He's into all the, well, U2 is his favorite band, which is OK by me. But he loves Fall Out Boy, and Plain White T's. He hasn't told me what he likes about [ABBA]. But he's a drummer, and it has great musicality to it. Sometimes the lyrics are a little bit cheesy. I don't know.
Were you an ABBA fan growing up?
Not a major ABBA fan. I was more into Jackson Browne, Styx and Kansas. But I liked ABBA, for sure. I had some of their cassettes. I had ABBA Gold.
Talk about your favorite numbers. I'm guessing "Mamma Mia!," "S.O.S." and "The Winner Takes it All"?
Truthfully, it vacillates. I do love to sing "Mamma Mia!" for sure, although there's a song called "Slipping Through My Fingers" that's an upper-register ballad that comes in the second act. It depends on the night. I think it's where I'm at emotionally, a vibe, or it depends on my voice. It's a very demanding production for my voice, and sometimes it's easier to sing the lighter, floatier stuff. Singing the finale [the encore] is a blast! Oh my god, yeah. Rock star. You get to sing "Dancing Queen" and then it goes into "Waterloo." And look at how the audience reacts to that! They wanna hear it! They're like, "Yeah!"
In your only Broadway appearance in 1995, you were a replacement for Fantine in Les Miserables. What happened?
I had already auditioned for Les Miz three or four times. And it would always be, "We like you so much ... oh, not this time." I had just had a baby. I decided to leave New York. I was living in Branson, Mo., at the time. But don't print that. OK, you can print that. And they were having auditions in Branson, I wanted to audition for Cosette. I figured, well, I live here, I knew Richard Jay Alexander, who was the artistic director or something like that at the time, so I figured I need to say hello. So I went into say hello, and he said, "Oh my God, you're a mother! You have to sing for Fantine!" So I went in the next day thinking, "I'm going to do all this and they're not going to cast me." And like on the spot he gave me the part, and that was that. It was one of those things where I sort of gave up, I'd left New York, thinking I'm not going to do Broadway. But never say never. It was a thrill. It was definitely the highlight of my career in terms of doing something on Broadway. I did it for a year and a half. And I left when Ricky Martin left. He'd only done it for three months. That's my claim to fame.