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West End Mamma Mia! Star Mazz Murray on Graduating from Tanya to Donna, Performing in We Will Rock You for a Decade & More

West End Mamma Mia! Star Mazz Murray on Graduating from Tanya to Donna, Performing in We Will Rock You for a Decade & More
Mazz Murray as Donna in "Mamma Mia!"
(Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Mazz Murray (the snappy first name is short for Marianne) has lent her distinctive rock sound to such West End musical mainstays as We Will Rock You, as the Killer Queen, and Chicago. The gutsy, take-no-prisoners performer is now returning to Mamma Mia!, not in her previous supporting role as Tanya but, instead, taking on the leading part of Donna over the next year at the Novello Theatre. caught up with Murray early in her current run to discuss stepping up within a show and why she is happy to stay with jobs she loves.

What has it been like graduating to the lead role of Donna after two years on the West End in this same show as Tanya?
It’s most bizarre to find that when you know a show from one perspective, then you really don’t know it from another. I’ve found myself leaving the stage as Donna and going, “What’s next? What’s going to happen?” And they’re all looking at me like “How can you not know?”

Is it a quasi-surreal experience?
It’s like when you see friends out of context and you feel as if you don’t know them. Throw in the fact that you’re terrified and the adrenaline is rushing, and it’s going to take time to settle.

Do you sometimes feel as if you could just snap back into playing Tanya?
Not now, I couldn’t remember it. I’m programmed for [Donna]. I know my story and the rest of it doesn’t matter: it’s as if we’re all finding our way with it afresh.

Aren’t the roles actually quite different?
Completely, though I do think anybody who can understand and deliver comedy, as with Tanya, has the ability to understand and deliver tragedy, as with Donna: the two go hand-in-hand and so I think the hardest part of it all is being able to show them that. I knew that it was going to be a bit of a mountain to climb.

Mazz Murray as Tanya (with Filippo Coffano as Pepper) in Mamma Mia! during the 2016-2017 season
(Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

How did you persuade the powers that be?
I was given terrific advice by Ruthie Henshall who is a bit of a hero of mine and whom I had been working with. I said to her, “I’m in for Donna tomorrow and I can’t sleep; they don’t see me as Donna,” and she said, “Don’t be you”—which was the most wonderfully profound bit of advice. I stripped away everything they know about me and walked in basically as Donna, or at least my take on Donna. I thought, I’m either in the running or I’ve totally blown it.

What made you go for this upgrade in roles?
It had been done before by the late, great Louise Plowright [who died in 2016], so I knew it could be done and asked to be considered. I wanted to sing some of the best music in the world which is also some of the hardest music in the world because it’s been made famous by some of the best voices in the world: I just wanted to sing these songs.

And how has it been so far [less than a week into your new run]?
It’s much harder: it’s a marathon, it’s relentless. It’s like act two of Chicago for Velma in that you do not stop. I had a real laugh playing Tanya. I would come on, do something funny and leave and have tea: that’s your evening. But Donna is exhausting emotionally as well as musically and physically.

Speaking of non-stopping, how did you manage nearly a decade in the Queen musical We Will Rock You?
How does anybody manage being in the same job? Hundreds of people do it, but what startled everybody is that no one else has done it in the theater, or so it seems, whereas the law of averages is that most people have stayed in their place of work for nearly a decade. I was singing the best songs in a terrific situation with fabulous friends in a beautiful building: practically speaking, I had no reason to leave.

So why did you?
I got pregnant. While being in We Will Rock You, I had met my husband and we got married and I thought it would take quite a long time to get pregnant but these things don’t happen like that. I got pregnant within two weeks of us trying, and was over seven months' pregnant and still doing the show and before long I had fallen deeply in love with my baby and said I think it’s time. I went back and did my last two weeks and left having had the most perfect experience of my life. For me to go back would probably never have been the same.

Have you deliberately gravitated towards the rock/pop end of the musical spectrum?
My first love was musicals—Jesus Christ Superstar and West Side Story and I even loved Mack and Mabel and 42nd Street. My mum [Grazina Frame] was a musical-theater performer and was in 42nd Street at Drury Lane with Georgia Brown, so I grew up with that; I loved the Busby Berkeley sound.

Where, then, did the affinity for a harder-edged sound come from?
I always wanted to do musicals but I didn’t necessarily listen to them; that wasn’t my playlist. My playlist was rock and pop stuff, and I just loved to sing: I would go any way the wind blows that made me happy.

Did you and your mother ever work together?
I did my first job when I was nine, but mum and I never actually did a show together. She does appear on my album on one of the songs. She had the most magnificent career: she was Fräulein Kost in Cabaret with Wayne Sleep and went on tour with the Rolling Stones and Billy Fury. My dad was a songwriter called Mitch Murray who recently received a CBE [prominent British honor].

After Queen and ABBA, what’s the logical next step—maybe Cher, assuming The Cher Show makes it to the West End?
[Laughs] Do I look like Cher? I’ve no idea! Having done a rock show, I can tell you they’re not easy! They’re fun for a week and then it’s, like, “This is hard!” Brian May said to me that I had sung Queen’s songs more than Freddie Mercury ever did. Pop songs and rock songs aren’t meant to be sung eight times a week and don’t call upon the same technique. Cher’s voice is so formidable, it’s magnificent: well done to her!

You mention your album, Midnight Mazz: what can you tell us about it?
That one only came out last year and is available on iTunes and was one of the most fabulous experiences ever. It was done my way completely and I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. I had the most stunning team of people helping and advising me, but it was my dad ultimately who gave me the most wonderful bit of advice about the music industry. He said that the worst thing is to do something other people will love. You have to do something you love and hope other people do, too.

Kirsty Hoiles as Tanya, Mazz Murray as Donna & Ricky Butt as Rosie with the current company of Mamma Mia!
(Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)