Mazz Murray from Mamma Mia! on the story behind ‘The Winner Takes It All’

The musical theatre powerhouse talks us through one of the production’s biggest moments

Mazz Murray was in her early twenties the first time she saw Mamma Mia! in the West End. Back in 1999, before the jukebox musical boom, the show was considered fairly unusual fare for the West End. A soundtrack made up entirely of ABBA? Murray was hooked.

“It was the first time I’d seen a musical with pop music, and the first time that I’d seen a leading lady (Siobhan McCarthy) who was primarily a rock pop folk singer,” she said. “I thought, blimey, there’s hope for me yet.”

Murray’s powerhouse voice is well-known on the West End. Since that trip to the theatre to see Mamma Mia! she’s starred in shows such as We Will Rock You, Chicago and Rent – productions that feature music built for big voices.

“I was never chosen at school to sing all the Stephen Sondheim stuff,” she says. “I was never that sort of singer.” Oddly enough, it was her voice that prevented her from joining the cast of Mamma Mia! when it first premiered on the West End in 1999: she auditioned for Sophie, lead character Donna’s daughter, but missed out because, in her words, “I sounded 43 then”.

'The Winner Takes it All' Mazz Murray | Mamma Mia! | The Show Must Go On! Live

But it wasn’t Sophie that Murray was transfixed by when she sat down in the Prince Edward Theatre with a group of old school friends. It was Donna – the character that she was still about two decades away from being able to play.

“It was the way that she was very cool, she wasn’t tragic. She wasn’t downtrodden. She didn’t appear as a broken woman. It’s got unbelievably touching moments, but it was watching her for two and a half hours be a winner and yet sing about what she’d lost. And I thought that was quite an achievement, to bring up such sad elements of the show – which it does, because it’s about loss and losing your children and them moving on and leaving home and having your heart broken and losing a partner and being betrayed. To be able to do that, and it still be an upbeat, positive, ‘woohoo’ show… it’s quite a thing.”

She uses this word – or sound – a lot to describe the expectations audiences have walking into Mamma Mia!: a high-pitched ‘woohoo’, the kind you might hear on a hen night or at Magic Mike Live. It’s true that Mamma Mia! is associated with celebrations, high spirits and alcohol, with Grecian sun and good tunes. Watch Murray and the rest of the Mamma Mia! cast perform at West End Live, and you’ll see how the crowd receives them. The video of their 2021 performance cuts, in the middle of Murray’s solo, to a group of young girls, sat on the edge of a fountain, swaying and singing along with huge smiles on their faces.

MAMMA MIA! | West End LIVE 2021

Except Murray isn’t singing ‘Money, Money, Money’, or ‘Waterloo’, or the musical’s title track. She’s singing ‘The Winner Takes It All’. It’s a devastating song, one that audiences sometimes aren’t sure how to react to when it arrives in Act Two. But despite standing in contrast to much of the show’s material, ‘The Winner Takes It All’ provides something essential.

“It’s quite an achievement in a show that everybody goes into thinking, ‘This is going to be so much fun!’”, says Murray. “And then suddenly, the whole temperature drops. The whole vibe changes. If you can grab the audience at that moment, when you can hear a pin drop, I feel that I’ve achieved what they came out for, which is to be surprised, to be moved, to be empathetic.”

It’s something she knew she wanted to do the very first time Siobhan McCarthy’s performance grabbed her. What’s more, it’s a role she knew was perfectly suited to her voice. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a chance here. I hope it lasts 24 years!’”

Murray started in Mamma Mia! as Tanya, Donna’s seductive, self-assured friend. When she was asked back sometime later to audition for Donna, the idea of approaching such a huge solo for people who knew her as a completely different role was daunting.

“I don’t know what it is, but it’s very difficult auditioning for people that you know. I’d rather sing a song for 23,000 strangers than two that I know. It’s embarrassing. I guess it’s a bit like… I’m going to compare it to going to the doctor and taking your clothes off for someone you know. I think you’d rather someone you don’t.

“It’s a really vulnerable song. And I was terribly nervous. It was one of those situations where there were three of us left in the final, and we could all hear each other singing. And they were all brilliant. I was working with Ruthie Henshall – ooh, name drop! – the night before. And I said to her, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go. I’m so nervous.’ And she said, ‘What are you nervous about?’ And I said, ‘Well, they don’t see me as Donna.’ So she said, ‘Then don’t go in as you…’”

The Winner Takes It All (Meryl Streep) | Mamma Mia! (2008) | TUNE

She played it straight, she remembers. No jokes, no smiles – “I just got into the zone, sang the song with, I guess, a kind of attitude of ‘take it or leave it.’” She didn’t think she’d get it.

That was the first time Murray had sung ‘The Winner Takes It All’ for anyone. When she was cast and began rehearsals, she didn’t tackle the song until almost the last week, once most of the big chorus numbers were done and polished.

“That song is a show itself,” she says. “That song is its own, beginning, middle and end. Anybody that’s been through a breakup or been through heartache will recognise every part of that, you know – it’s a little miniseries. It’s: ‘Get out, I can’t look at you, where you going?’ My directors, Paul Garrington, and Steven Paling are two of the finest people who have enabled me to capture something that everybody can see something of themselves in. And that’s very hard to do when you’re singing a song because your ego can override your sense of acting. But you ruin the song, if you over sing it. People stop caring.”

With such a fine line to walk, the challenge then looking for a handle on how the track is supposed to be sung. And for Murray, that took a long time.

“Oh, God, every night it changes a bit,” she admits. “Because every night, you’re having to basically confront those feelings. It’s such a hard one, because it’s such a hard song to sing anyway. But then you throw in the fact that everybody loves it, and then you throw the fact that everybody loves ABBA, and it was sung by two of the finest singers ever… When do you get a handle on it?

“I guess when there is total silence. I think for many, many years, the first line of the song was was spoken. I said that I wanted to sing it, and everyone said, ‘Yeah, but sometimes it gets a laugh…’. But it shouldn’t, you know? Not if you set it up correctly. The first time I sang the first line and nobody laughed, I thought, ‘okay, we’re on to something’.”

It’s not an easy thing, though, to separate what she’s trying to do on stage every night from the idea of ‘The Winner Takes It All’ that the audience will already have in their heads. It’s a common obstacle that jukebox musicals come up against, and it can often produce the laughter she talks about. To hear these familiar pieces of music in a way that feels unfamiliar and out of place can sometimes strike us as comical, or just plain jarring. It’s why it’s so crucial that Murray’s rendition makes audiences feel something.

She often contrasts it in her head with the original music video. “That video was our little window into [Agnetha and Bjorn’s] relationship, and their heartache. Because she was almost emotionless on it, and she was almost motionless on it, and yet it was so penetrating in its simplicity. So heart-breaking. In this show, of course, we have a backstory, and ours is a little bit different, but you want to have the same impact. She delivered such a masterclass and ours is just a little bit more… I don’t know, I think ours is more exposed than hers. Hers was very melancholy, and very sad. And I think ours is a little bit like ‘Get out’, you know?

ABBA - The Winner Takes It All

“I think one of my favourite moments is when I walk towards Sam, when I’m saying ‘But tell me does she kiss like I used to kiss you…’. Because I’m suddenly showing my hand and showing you that vulnerability. At the beginning it’s more like, ‘Yeah, whatever, whatever. You’ve left me, that’s cool. I didn’t get you, fine.’

“And then suddenly, the emotion changes. Now it’s, ‘No, actually, I want to know. I want to know everything. I don’t. But I do…’ And I walk towards him. And the line is ‘Somewhere deep inside, you must know I miss you’. And at that point, I hate myself because I’ve shown him that I still care. And I turn my back on him and put Mrs. Toughie back on, but I love that little window. It’s the only time in the two hours she shows him vulnerability. She’s basically saying, ‘I still love you. I never got over it.’ And yet she gets so cross that she’s done that. I do love that moment for being in the song. Because otherwise I’m just bollocking him for five minutes.”

Musical theatre performers will sometimes reference something being ‘in their body’, the point at which a song or a script or a routine is under their skin so insistently that it’s impossible to forget, when they could almost do it on autopilot. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, Murray says, can’t be performed like that. “The minute I do that, I forget it. I forget my lines… That song is… it’s a marathon. You get such an amazing reaction from an audience who’ve all got their own story about it. I love it. I’ve never been bored. I never switch off. It’s too hard. It’s actually too hard to not think about it.”

“I just can’t believe my luck because it was always a dream role for many reasons,” she says. “But primarily because the music is so out of this world. And I’m a really choosy, funny, weird person with music in shows. If I love the music, I’ll stay in the show for as long as they’ll have me.

“For the punters, you see the show once, maybe twice. Maybe you’ll come back three times in a year. But when you’ve got to listen to it every single night on the tannoy eight times a week, it’s got to be sensational. Or you’ll go slowly insane.

“I absolutely love it. It is it is one of the biggest privileges to sing a song like that. I’ve sung lots of rubbish in my life. And I’ve sung so much brilliant, brilliant work. But that is one of the finest songs. I can’t think of another song like it. I really can’t.”

Find tickets for Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre here.