An ABBA musical that isn’t ‘Mamma Mia?’ Queer art-heist musical takes it all

A group of actors all huddle on stage.
The Winner Takes It All follows the story of a queer, ABBA-themed heist. (Courtesy: Shannyn Corcoran)

While many people associate the words “ABBA” and “musical” with the smash hit “Mamma Mia,” Spotlight Musical Theatre gave the band’s popular music a new story with its production of “The Winner Takes It All.” The queer, campy art heist musical they came up with — how can one resist it? 

The show follows the story of a lesbian couple, Jamie and Alex, who are former criminals turned musicians struggling to make ends meet. Sick of settling for mediocrity, they return to their criminal roots for one last heist. Everything goes smoothly, until it turns out that the art auction they were planning on stealing from is run by Emmeline, Jamie’s ex-girlfriend, and her new husband, Alan. Alex, Jamie and their accomplices (disguised as a cover band) dance and jive their way through it all and, in the end, money money money is stolen and the two main lovers live happily ever after. 

Rinny Williamson SC ’23 first thought of the idea when they heard about a “Mamma Mia” rewrite contest. Since “Mamma Mia” is one of their favorite musicals and ABBA is one of their favorite bands, Williamson was immediately up for the challenge; they even wrote the two-hour play in just two weeks. Their goal was to write a fun, upbeat and utterly over-the-top show. 

“When I wrote this show, I was going through a really hard time,” Williamson said. “I just really [wanted to make] a fun show that’s happy … It’s a queer couple and everyone’s having a really good time and it’s the ’80s but there’s no homophobia … it’s all just supposed to be completely camp, that really is the word of the show.” 

Williamson worked in collaboration with the play’s director, Claire Foster SC ’23, to develop the play, adding scenes and forming a story that suited both of their visions. 

“We added a whole song, and a whole scene — a whole plotline, actually,” Williamson said. “And it was very major.” 

The show was intended to be an uplifting experience for everyone involved. At the beginning of the rehearsal process, Foster and Williamson met with each actor individually to delve into the details of their characters — what pronouns they would use, how they wanted to be presented and even their backstories. 

“We wanted everyone to feel very very welcome and comfortable in the space,” Foster said. “Since this is a cast of primarily queer people, we just wanted to make this [was] space that felt the best [it possibly could] and where they could just rejoice.” 

Williamson also tried to imbue the script with this inclusive and welcoming energy. They wanted to make sure that there were no small roles — that each one “would be really fun to play.” After stepping in at the last minute to fill a few roles, Williamson attested that they were “still having the best time,” confirming that all of the characters were a blast to be. 

The intentionality and good-spiritedness that the writers and directors’ brought to producing the play did in fact pay off — the performances were a lively and celebratory affair. Audience members such as Jenna Wu-Cardona SC ’23 were so ecstatic they danced in their seats. 

“[We made] something that’s truly beautiful that’s all totally student produced … It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

Margo Lusinchi SC '22

“It was so fun,” Wu-Cardona said. “At the last song, everybody stood up … and the audience was dancing all together and clapping along.” 

Margo Lusinchi SC ’22, who played the role of Apollo, believes the vision behind the play is important and beautiful. They had always wanted to be in a musical and, when they heard the plot, they couldn’t resist auditioning last fall. Being in the production bought them much joy. 

“The most exciting part has been seeing how powerful a group of students can be,” Luscinchi said. “[We made] something that’s truly beautiful that’s all totally student produced … It’s an honor to be a part of it.”

But after rehearsing for months, the show was canceled on opening night in December due to rising COVID-19 cases.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Lusinchi said, and they didn’t know if the show was going to happen again.

Despite the live show’s cancellation, the cast and crew persisted and performed an Instagram live show that same weekend they were originally supposed to perform.  They were asked if they wanted to pull together an in-person performance this semester when they came back from winter break. Like super troupers, they managed to throw the show back together in only a week, with nearly the entire cast returning to put on a weekend of performances Feb. 11 and 12.

Lusinchi said they were worried about returning to the show and remembering everything, but after rehearsals started again, everything came back.

“[It was] flowing through our bodies,” Lusinchi said of the choreography. “I felt like I knew [it] even better than I did before.”

Although it was devastating that the show was canceled last semester, the experience brought the cast much closer together, said Carson Hambuchan PO ’24, the show’s stage manager. 

The show ended with an homage to “Mamma Mia’s” ending, the cast asked emphatically, “Do you want an encore?” The theater was filled with excitement. The audience cheered loudly, a metaphorical ‘thank you for the music.’

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