Theatre: “Mamma Mia!” Where is the diversity?

This post about theatre, specifically Mamma Mia! is not a review, but a look at a problem I have identified with this great, long-running show, which I saw for the second time and first time as an adult at Manchester’s Opera House on its umpteenth UK tour. But before we get into that, here is an extremely quick overview review of the show:

  • Basic set and stage production that puts the characters and musical numbers at the forefront, but loses the wonder of the beautiful Greek islands the film showcased
  • Engaging storyline that cleverly weaves in the music by one of the greatest pop band’s of all time, ABBA
  • A strong and talented cast, particularly Sara Poyzer at Donna Sheridan, Richard Standing as Sam and Sarah Earnshaw as Tanya
  • And for those who like a bit of guy candy, let’s not forget a host of rambunctious young men!

On the face of it, as a musical, I would be inclined to rate it at least 4, maybe 4.5 stars. It’s certainly up there as a warming, feel-good show that everyone can enjoy.

The current main and supporting cast for the Mamma Mia! UK tour

But for a show that has been around since 1999, making it into the top ten longest-running shows on the West End and on Broadway with nearly 15,000 performances between the two and having grossed more than $600 million on Broadway alone, the current UK tour at least, still shows the inequity that exists in theatre. This inequity is visible and proven both on and off stage; research by Arts Council England in 2015 found that people of colour accounted for only 5% of the employees in London theatres, yet the city has as high as a 40% ethnic minority population.

A look at the current cast of 30 on tour and 33 in the West End, roughly 1 in 5 on both appear to be people of colour. I mean, that statistic itself isn’t so bad. But when you look at the roles those people of colour fill, you see a problem. In both, none of them are in the two principal roles of Donna and Sophie Sheridan, nor any of Sophie’s three possible dads. They do however, fill the supporting roles of Sophie’s friends Ali (both) and Lisa (tour), Donna’s friend Tanya (West End) and Sky’s friend Pepper (tour), which are not bad parts, but when a study by Creative Diversity Network shows that TV actors from all ethnic minority groups recorded except South Asian, are in more supporting or minor roles than main roles, a pattern is quite clear.

The diversity of roles within the West End

And when things are looking up for ethnic minority actors in theatre (38% of performers across 19 West End musicals in 2019), you would think a traditionally White-dominant musical such as Mamma Mia! would want to move with the times. Conversely though, 6 of the 19 musicals feature predominantly ethnic minority casts, helping to boost those numbers and those performers from said shows make up 70% of the 38% previously mentioned (with those six taken away, it crashes to 18%). In both aforementioned casts of Mamma Mia! and in various other White-dominant shows, you will likely see where those of colour are – in the ensemble, rather than in any named supporting or minor roles, let alone in lead roles.

While it’s great that there are musicals and roles almost quite specifically for ethnic minority actors, why should they be limited to those roles? Shows that have hired ethnically diverse actors in bigger roles usually portrayed by White people include: Frozen, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Beauty and the Beast, Legally Blonde, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, among others, showing a commitment to challenging the status quo and giving under-represented people further opportunities beyond pigeonholed roles in the likes of Hairspray, Dreamgirls and The Lion King. Then again, ethnic diversity is still one-sided; Black talent accounts for a whopping 85% of the 38%, while South Asian actors represent 7%, East Asian just 3% and the remaining 5% being “other”. Equity across all ethnic minorities appears to lag as far behind as general ethnic diversity does in general.

The nearly all-Asian American cast of Mamma Mia! in Los Angeles

Some steps to diversify casts in Mamma Mia! have been made elsewhere though, such as at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle and LA-based theatre group East West Players, the latter of which staged it with a majority Asian-American cast. But beyond these two examples, very few others seem to exist and from a quick Google search there doesn’t seem to have been any actors of colour in principal roles in major productions.

Although of course people should be cast on talent and merit, unconscious bias can and does exist and when you have a majority of a group auditioning and that same majority sitting on the casting panel (the tour’s current casting director is White), statistically the outcome will lean towards that majority. Furthermore, is it not a little coincidental that in 2022, the West End production company of Mamma Mia! had to have equality training after racial discrimination claims were brought to light? The grievances may have been upheld but if they didn’t think there was a problem, would they have still held the training?

As Mamma Mia! continues to excite audiences (especially since it celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2024) and be part of ABBA’s huge legacy, I hope that can be reflected more in their casting that follows in the footsteps of other shows that in turn reflects the diverse fans who watch it and are fans of the band. Interesting statistics show that just 7% of audiences at NPOs (National Portfolio Organisations) from 2020 to 2021 were from ethnic minorities, yet I saw quite a few non-White people watching Mamma Mia! when I went. Do those theatres and shows want to change that? If so, how can they if they are not giving more ethnic minority talent opportunities and putting them more at the forefront? Well, if you’re an ethnic minority actor I strongly recommend auditioning to appear in the upcoming new ITV talent show Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream, for which applications close on 5th March. The question is though, will the “panel of well-known industry experts in both music and theatre” judging be diverse too?

What are your thoughts on the ethnic or general diversity within not just Mamma Mia!‘s productions but other shows too and how they can combat the issue?

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