Óscar Balmaseda talks ‘Mamma Mia! – The Party”: “I dare anyone not to have fun”

Just a few minutes away from the electrifying buzz of London’s West End, on the not-so-quieter bends of the Thames river, lies the Greek island of Skopelos. Well, maybe not the real one, but certainly the one with the realest feeling and essence. Mamma Mia – The Party continues to wow viewers through its dreamy production, compelling new story and, above all, staggering soundtrack. Guillermo Názara chats with one of its lead actors, to learn more about the show whose audiences are laying all their love on.

The original musical, the holographic production and now also this show with ABBA repertoire. 3 different shows in the same city and they are all a success. It’s as if the demand for ABBA never ends…

Yes, there is an ABBA-mania that never ends; you don’t know where its limits are, really. Especially this year, when they released a new album after so many years without releasing any music together. But it is also curious that a group that lasted ten years in the 70s, that in 2022 they are still selling everything wherever they are, without doing anything together. It’s just the music they created. It’s something incredible, really, something to admire.

And what do you think is the reason for that success? Because in your audience there are old people as well as people in their early twenties.

I’ve thought about that a lot. I always think about what has made them so, so famous. But when I listen to the songs, especially the ones that have been hits, you know that they have been those hits. They are songs that are very well composed. They spent hours and hours looking for chords, that unique sound that made them famous. And then you have songs where the verse is a great song and then you go to the chorus and it’s another great song; two together in the same piece. I think that made them kind of epic, and then also obviously the talent that they had in writing them. They were very clever, using many words and many songs in other languages, like Chiquitita, Mamma Mia! or Fernando. They knew very well where their market was and how to create a bigger market and what was in those days. I saw a documentary about how they built it, and it is something incredible when you analyze it: how they got there, that it was not by chance. This is many years of work and many years of craft, using that unique ingredient that 50 years later still is. Today you sing it and it seems modern. It’s a bit of luck, obviously, like everything in this world, but I think that luck here, after 50 years, should not be so much…

This musical is related to its precursor, but yet the plot is completely different and is not a sequel. As an actor, does that pose an added challenge to a general pubic that may be expecting a sequel or a version of the same material?

Yes, in a way it does. Because as you rightly said, there are a lot of people who come to see Mamma Mia The Party thinking they’re coming to a movie experience. They come to the movie and then they come and they realize that this is not the movie. There are a lot of people who come saying “we’re coming to a wedding,” but whose wedding, if there is no wedding? So it does make you work harder, in the sense that there is a percentage of people that you have to convince for the next ten, 15 minutes, that they have not come to the Mamma Mia! musical, but to something different. As an actor, I like that a lot, especially the work of being the one who tells them the story. That’s the good thing about immersive theater: you see their faces, they’re confused, but they laugh and they like it. It does involve a little more work, but the gratification is greater to see that you are changing a concept that they had completely different.

In the show you play Nico, the friendly, histrionic and somewhat overprotective owner of the tavern. I imagine that when a character is so intense, you also have to measure that point when constructing the role. How has that process been?

I think I’ve learned over time. We opened the musical three years ago and I had never done any immersive theater before, in terms of being around people. I’ve never been afraid of it, but it’s something you learn day by day. You realize that you’re not in a theater where you have to perform for people who are in front of you, but you’re doing something that has to be very real around you and the faces are there. So you’re always preparing yourself to act the truth. It’s something that sometimes I forget and I have to remind myself. I was once given some very good advice: “don’t act”. And I said to myself: “What do you mean, don’t act? It’s about doing what a character would do, and that helps me a lot. Sometimes it’s very easy to fall into that facet of overacting and you have to think: “no, I have to be that person myself”.

What would be that truth translated to this particular character?

Once you know the script and you have it, it’s in your body. I like to explore a lot, I don’t like to do the same shows all the time. When I’m going to say something, instead of saying my line I often try to look at the person who said the previous line and react naturally: “what would I say next, I’m going to say this, I’m going to say it like this…”. And that’s the advantage of doing this kind of theater, that you have a little more open doors to be a little more you in a way, because I believe that there is never a wrong way in this kind of theater, but I really like to react as I would say something. There are times when it works and other times when it doesn’t, sometimes you say to him and you say, it’s too strong, too aggressive, I shouldn’t be so aggressive, but you don’t have to think about things so much, you have to be natural, otherwise people will notice it.

Is there a part of you that you have given him the character or that you and he share?

One hundred percent. And as an actor, I’m a person who thinks that any character you play, any person, always has to have a part of you, that every actor is different, but I always play the part of me as I would be, as if Oscar were this person: if he had this life, if he were this way, that’s how I would be. Obviously there are things that work and things that don’t, but for me there is always a percentage of a character that is you. If not, it wouldn’t be those feelings, that emotional or dramatic connection or whatever I don’t think I would ever finish connecting it.

You have been with the play for a long time now, have there been any moments in which these interactions with the audience have given rise to any funny situation or that you would like to comment on?

Many, many, many. The other day, for example, I found a girl straightening her hair with irons. Yes, in the play! That’s the thing about immersive theater. Mamma Mia! – The Party transports you to Greece, to a vacation, and there are many people who relax so much that they really believe they are on vacation, that they are somewhere else.

Playing another character, I asked a lady, “Is there anything I can fix for you?”. And she replied, “Yes, my marriage.” These are situations where you never know what’s there. For example, a girl yesterday told me that she was coming to celebrate that it was one of the last times she was going to be able to celebrate at the moment, because she was a little sick. That always touches you, good or bad. Every day you’re going to have someone there whose life you’re going to change. There is a person who is there to transport you and change three hours of your life, either for better or for worse.  That’s the thing about immersive and live theater, you never know what’s going to happen to you. That adrenaline is what I like to live with too, huh? Don’t think about it. It’s a unique adrenaline.

The energy of the audience, at least when I went to see him last week, is brutal. People get into it from the first moment and interact with you all the time. I imagine that also nourishes you when it’s time to go on with the show.

Yes, absolutely. It’s something that people really like to see: there’s always someone who is part of the show. Because at the end of the day they’ve paid to be in an immersive experience. So you know perfectly well that there are people who are going to perform with them and others who are not, so when they see that they are part of it, people like it a lot and so do we. Not always, because there are times when someone doesn’t feel like it and then it’s a bit more difficult, but there are great moments: sometimes they take pictures, they take selfies, sometimes they call each other, sometimes you get a message by chance, there are people who like to talk and tell you how old they are. It is something very unique, really.

It’s a very intense show, too. During the breaks you are still there because you are talking to the audience. Both in terms of acting and not only in terms of building the character, but enduring that rhythm, such a transmutation function is very intense. How do you deal with something like that?

Eventually you don’t realize it and you get used to the character, but it’s exhausting. Because, as you say, when you’re on stage, in the West End or wherever you are, you always have your backstage set up and then you come out and you have to perform. And once you turn around nobody sees you anymore. Here, whatever you do, whatever move you make, whatever you are wherever you are, there’s always going to be a person watching you. So that’s pressure. At first it’s a pressure that you can put on yourself and there’s always something watching me or you can deal with it, and admit it, accept it and play with it. I like it a lot. Well, as you say, many times I’m walking around and I see the woman who plays my wife and I pick her up and ask her: “What’s up, beautiful?”, and I start dancing with her because it comes out of me, because I’m like that as a person and I think my character would do it that way too. I think people like to see it too. It’s a way to kind of stop acting and being and carry it in you. So you’re not acting, you’re always just facing what is, living someone else’s life, but you’re constantly living it. But as you say, it’s exhausting. After four hours it’s perfect.

If you had to give me one reason to go see this show compared to the other ABBA shows, what would it be?

I dare you not to have a good time. I dare anyone who comes to see the musical. I dare you to walk out of that building without a smile on your face, from face to face, and without feeling happy and without the feeling that you’ve had a totally unique experience.

Mamma Mia! – The Party plays from Wednesdays to Sundays. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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