Dear graduating class of 2000. I know you are concerned about your future. You're asking yourselves, 'What the hell can I do with my degree in microbiology?' I say to you, 'Act! Write a hit play! Spend your nights singing and dancing to ABBA songs!'"
At least that's what Lee MacDougall, BSc, is doing.
Since hanging up his lab coat, the U of T science grad has donned tights at Stratford, penned the award-winning play High Life and is now limbering up for Mamma Mia!, the North American premiere of the West End musical based on 22 songs by that Euro camp sensation of the 70s and 80s, ABBA.
Strange career "It's been a strange career course," MacDougall admits, settling down in the plush red-velvet bar area of the Royal Alex, where the show begins previews tonight (Thursday, May 11).
"You wouldn't think it, but my science training has occasionally come in handy," he jokes, as delivery people wheel mysterious crates through the empty room and a drum kit reverberates through the walls. "Mostly I think the training has helped my writing, sharpened my analytical mind and given me an ability to study and dissect things."
Consider his near-scientific analysis of the popularity of Mamma Mia!, which has broken nearly every box office record in the UK.
The show uses ABBA songs to tell the story of a young bride-to-be (Tina Maddigan) who invites three of her mother's (Louise Pitre) former beaus to her wedding on a Greek isle to see which of them is her real father.
"The trend in big musicals now is to try to pre-sell the music," explains MacDougall, who plays one of the potential fathers. "Either there's a film or a cartoon, or you release the album before the show so you're guaranteed at least some recognition.
"With Mamma Mia!, everyone who was alive in the late 70s and early 80s knows this music. And because young kids are suddenly into ABBA, there are even more people who know the songs. There's a built-in audience. I'm not surprised at all that it's a hit."
He is a little surprised, though, to be in the cast. Last fall, the Mirvishes phoned his agent to see if he wanted to audition for the show. He declined, since he was busy penning a stage adaptation of W.O. Mitchell's novel Who Has Seen The Wind. In January, they called again.
What now? "By then I had finished the play, so I thought, 'Why not?' When I actually got the role, I thought, 'What now?' Then my writing agent sat me down and said, 'You realize that once the show opens, you'll actually be getting paid to write during the day.' And that's what I'm doing. When it opens, I'll be writing full-time during the day and performing at night.
"It's how I wrote High Life," confesses MacDougall. "I was at Stratford acting at night and writing this play about drugs and ex-cons during the day."
Oh yes, High Life. The title's proved prophetic. Last year, productions of the 1996 show were mounted in New York and London, England. A version is currently playing in Greece, another goes up soon in Australia, yet another arrives in Halifax in the winter and the show's currently being translated into Japanese for a Tokyo production in January 2001.
But MacDougall is determined not to be a one-hit wonder. His second original play, The Ginko Tree, opens in Vancouver next January with Goldie Semple in the lead. It's a romantic comedy/farce set in a plant store in a small town. Who Has Seen The Wind is slotted for Saskatoon's Persephone Theatre in September.
Edgier work He's also working on an edgier work, Waterdown Road, about Ottawa politicians and their wives.
"It explores a darker world, like High Life," he tells me. "There are no druggies or ex-cons. There's a different kind of criminal."
And what about Music Of The Millennium, the piece he wrote for the dinner-theatre set at Stage West in Mississauga? Don't see that credit on his resume, do we?
"My partner, director Tim French, was approached to create something for them," MacDougall admits, laughing. "So we wrote this musical linking hits from the entire 20th century. A little bit of book, a lot of music. It was actually a big hit, apparently the top-selling Stage West show they've ever had, or something."
The experience of creating a book for a series of independent songs makes him appreciate the cleverness of Mamma Mia!, which does the same thing.
"When I read the script, it made me laugh out loud, especially when the characters burst into certain ABBA songs," says MacDougall, who points out that the show uses original orchestrations of the songs, complete with the occasional sampling of an old 70s Moog synthesizer.
His favourite tune is Dancing Queen, although he can't quite explain to me what the song's about.
"I think," he tries out, "it's about this 17-year-old girl watching someone dance. Or maybe she wishes she was the dancing queen. Who knows? It's a great song. It connects to something deep in my soul."
And what about those campy ESL lyrics? My own favourite bad line comes from The Winner Takes It All: "Seeing me so tense/ No self-confidence."
"Yeah, the lyrics are sometimes laughable, but hey, it's pop music. You're entitled to laugh at them."
MAMMA MIA!, by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Catherine Johnson, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with Adam Brazier, Gabrielle Jones, Gary Lynch, Tina Maddigan, Lee MacDougall, Mary Ellen Mahoney, David Mucci and Louise Pitre. Presented by Littlestar in association with Universal and David & Ed Mirvish at the Royal Alexandra (260 King West). Previews from tonight (Thursday, May 11), opens May 23 and runs to September 10, Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinees Wednesday, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm (no matinee May 17 and 24, added matinee May 25 at 2 pm). $25-$93. 872-1212.