Kevin Casey is a member of the ABBA fan club. Don’t believe him? Just ask to see his official card — yes, they exist. But back when the musical director for the Mamma Mia! broadway tour was at USC, he would have categorized the Swedish pop group as something his mother would listen to. He’s since changed his tune.
“I’ve become a huge fan,” Casey said.
Casey, who moved from Florida to Huntington Beach, Calif. as a kid, grew up listening to bands such as the Beach Boys and The Beatles.
His interest in ABBA is recent, having started after he was offered the gig for Mamma Mia! last August. At first, he was skeptical of taking the job (“I had kind of a snobby attitude for it,” he said.) But while researching the production, something clicked for him.
Normally, musicals have a historic incident or a novel they are based on. But the only thing Casey could find to research for Mamma Mia! was the music. So Casey bought all eight albums and listened.
“It really permeated,” Casey said. “It’s a band becoming this international phenomenon, writing songs not in their language. To reach that many people — what they accomplished is sort of unrivaled.”
Mamma Mia!, which is headed for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Tuesday (a homecoming of sorts for Casey), has been on Broadway since 2001. The musical currently holds the distinction of being the ninth longest-running show in Broadway history. That statistic doesn’t surprise Casey.
“Their music — it’s meant a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “People can relate to this; it’s about people having people problems: mother-daughter problems, trouble with your ex … problems that everyone can understand.”
More than that, in a more cynical age, the production makes people smile. Casey said that it’s normal for audience members to stand up in their seats and dance, imitating the choreography and singing along.
“It’s fun knowing that your work has touched people, it’s making people happy,” Casey said.
That idea, of bringing people together through music, was what first drew Casey himself into the music profession. He traces his interest back to when he joined his high school show choir, the Marina High “Mariners.” It was the first time he had played with other musicians and the first time he played in front of a live audience. Casey was captivated.
“That was a real ‘aha’ moment,” he said.
He went on to study music composition and conducting at USC, but had trouble finding his place musically in what was then a predominantly classical curriculum.
“Now there’s a film scoring program, a popular music one,” Casey said. “None of that existed back then. It was strictly classical and I was sort of a fish out of water.”
Classes such as Dr. Thom Mason’s jazz improvisation however brought him into contact with new genres.
“What I really got out of [USC] was being exposed to so much music,” Casey said. “Music history class was my favorite. It was the first time I heard Tchaikovsky, the first time I heard Stravinsky. It made me realize that the music I grew up listening to was just scratching the surface, and there was so much out there.”
After Casey left USC, he worked at an arts high school as a teacher and as the school’s musical director. Working on musicals gave him experience conducting performances, which eventually led him to take a job on tour as a music director in 2001.
“It was a small tour, all one-nighters, small towns,” Casey said. “It was great. The smaller the town, the more fun it was.”
Touring still holds an allure for Casey today. For Mamma Mia! (which he already committed to for another season), one of his favorite parts of touring is the opportunity to explore the local scenes during each leg of the tour.
“It’s a really fun way to see the country,” Casey said.
But the best part for him about being on Mamma Mia! is the music. Despite having worked intensively on the songs for the past eight months, he said he still sees the music through fresh eyes.
“I’m always thinking from the audience’s [perspective],” Casey said. “When they come to the show, for them it’s show number one. I want them to have that experience.”
His personal favorite song in the production is “Waterloo.”
“It’s the very last one and it gets the crowd up and going,” Casey said.
His parents, who still live in the area, will be at the performance next week. But between his mother and him, there’s no question who the bigger ABBA fan is now.
After all, as Casey said, “she’s not in the fan club.”
Mamma Mia! will be playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts from April 8-13.