Mamma Mia! is billed as The World's No. 1 Show. Catherine Johnson took 20 ABBA songs and wrote a mother/daughter story around them. Her story is appropriate as women's issues are the major theme of songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. Detractors call Mamma Mia! a jukebox musical. If nothing else, it is a means of perpetuating the ABBA catalog, a body of 110 songs which surpasses The Beatles in quality. Indeed, ABBA was the Swedish Fab Four. Mamma Mia! stays on tour, and it has a permanent home in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay. It is refreshing to see a musical whose every song is a recognizable hit. Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me and Waterloo transport us back to the 1970s, that halcyon interlude between Vietnam and the War on Terror. We will never relive that period, but Mamma Mia! offers an over-the-shoulder glimpse.
Addressing Mamma Mia! critics, ABBA music being 30 years old is not a legitimate complaint. Mozart is older. Shakespeare holds up where modern playwrights are shallow. ABBA wrote and produced the brightest, most positive pop music ever. Their songs carry two hours even if the plot around them is thin. The songs are three and four minute dramas. They are character-based. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus went into theater after ABBA and wrote the Chess musical with Tim Rice. They staged Kristina fran Duvemala in Sweden. They tended in this direction from the beginning. That the songs appear randomly placed in Mamma Mia! is a matter of perspective. If each of us had written a book around 20 ABBA songs, the show would have come out different every time. Catherine Johnson had the idea first, and her sequence stands. Someone said Mamma Mia! is a party, and he is right.
Benny and Bjorn wanted to do one more musical. They did not realize they had already written it. Bjorn said that after Chess bombed on Broadway, he never wanted to go back to New York. Mamma Mia! has eased his pain. Mamma Mia is set on a Greek Island. There is the mother, the daughter and three possible fathers. I saw the show at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville in 2002.
It is true that the plot of Mamma Mia! is thin and was contrived as a way of tying ABBA's biggest hits together. The jukebox musical has had its day. Mamma Mia! works, however, in a way that the others do not because of the nature of ABBA's catalog. ABBA songs are little dramas in themselves. There is a strong feminist attitude, and mother/daughter themes permeate. Agnetha and Frida were mothers in the ABBA years. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote the songs around their wives. They teamed up with Tim Rice for Chess and came to Broadway. Chess bombed. The soundtrack was great, but the story remained in flux and changed with each production as it moved around the globe. Benny and Bjorn went looking for a concrete story. They adapted four novels to the stage by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg. Their musical, Kristina, is about the first Swedish emigrants to come to America. Kristina was a hit in Sweden in the 1990s but was four hours long and in Swedish. Benny and Bjorn's goal is to get a two-hour English version to Broadway. Mamma Mia! has helped. It gave them a worldwide hit and a success on Broadway. Mamma Mia! is an evening of entertainment and fun. It is a look back at our young days, and it has paved the way for Kristina.
MAMMA MIA! THE MOVIE
July 19, 2008. I just returned from seeing Mamma Mia! I laughed and cried for nearly 2 hours. The audience responded well to the high-energy ABBA songs. As I exited the theater, some girls were in a circle singing Dancing Queen. I will go to a karaoke bar tonight and sing it myself. Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan were great. I understand now why Streep is called a great actress. She has told Benny and Bjorn that she wants a part in Kristina when it becomes a movie.
Three women carried the stage show to the silver screen. Judy Craymer conceived the idea for Mamma Mia! back in 1999. Craymer was working with Benny and Bjorn on Chess. She presented the idea to them. They were skeptical but gave her the go ahead. Catherine Johnson wrote the book. Phyllida Lloyd directed. Mamma Mia! is set on a mythical Greek Island. The island theme fits well into the ABBA canon. There is a beautiful blue sky and water everywhere. Ex-hippie Donna Sheridan, played by Meryl Streep, owns a villa on the island. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Sigfried) is about to get married. Sophie has never known who her father was but wants him to give her away at her wedding. She gets into her mother's diary and finds the names of three men who might be her dad. She invites all three to the island. The three show up wearing shades. They could pass for The Bee Gees or the three blind mice. We suspect right away that Pierce Brosnan is Sophie's dad because he is the biggest name. Brosnan is Sam. Colin Firth is Harry. Stellan Skarsgard is Bill. As it turns out, the real dad is not revealed. Each guy gets credit for one-third.
It is ABBA's timeless songs which make the whole project possible. Sophie sings I Have A Dream as she takes her boat to mail the three letters to her potential fathers. Streep offers a stirring rendition of The Winner Takes It All, and Brosnan does When All Is Said And Done, an underrated song and one I was glad to see included. It was slowed down. Brosnan took some heat for his singing, but actually he was quite good.
Money Money Money worked its way into the story. Streep sings as we are given the idea that her villa is run down. A shutter falls from a window. Using binoculars Streep looks out to sea at a boat owned by a wealthy man. She lives the Titanic scene in her dreams.
This music is an orgy. Sophie and Sky sing Lay All Your Love On Me on a beach as Sky brandishes his cigar. Sophie swoons at the end of a frantic Voulez-Vous.
Sophie and her friends typify today's airhead females. Sophie is 20 and looks younger. The movie opens with the girls probably as an attempt to appeal to a younger audience. This music, as superior as it is, is 30 years old and must work to bring in the younger generation
Donna was a swinger back in the day and led a trio called Donna and The Dynamos. The Dynamos are Tanya and Rosie. They show up for Sophie's wedding. Sky is Sophie's husband-to-be.
I wanted the Dynamos not to be so homely. Maybe they were cast so as not to upstage Meryl Streep whose career has been built on talent, not looks.
Mamma Mia! has its share of zaniness in the dialog and lots of energy in its wild dancing. There is one scene I thought was tacky. Tanya sings "Does Your Mother Know" to a young, African-looking black guy after having flirted with him the night before. I know what David Duke would say about it, and it made me uncomfortable. I am not sure how young girls will react or if they will be influenced at all, but I wish parents could take their daughters into the lobby for some popcorn at this point.
Ironically, it is not Sophie and Sky who get married in the end. It is Donna and Sam. The youngsters go off to explore the world. The whole piece comes off as a Shakespearean comedy with ABBA songs.
Mamma Mia! was lucky to get Meryl Streep. She is known worldwide and is well liked. Tom Hanks is given credit as Executive Producer, having bought the movie rights. The film runs 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Benny is shown once. Bjorn is shown twice. Look quickly or you will miss them. Benny is at the upright piano during Dancing Queen as women run through the streets to the end of a pier and jump in the water. Bjorn is a Greek god at the film's end.
Benny recorded the backing tracks for Mamma Mia! with the same musicians who worked with ABBA: Lasse Wellander, Rutgar Gunnarsson and Per Lindvall. That is why they sound so good.
The songs in Mamma Mia! drew from seven ABBA albums. 20 songs made the cut. Some lyrics were modified to suit the characters and plot. For the most part, the lyrics remained intact.
1 Waterloo - Streep asks if we want another one before finishing the show with Waterloo.
2 Honey Honey - Sophie sings as she reads to her friends from her mother's diary.
3 Mamma Mia! - Streep sings the title track after finding her three lovers in her old goat house.
4 SOS - Duet from Streep and Brosnan about the love they abandoned.
5 I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do - Brosnan proposes, and Streep accepts.
6 Dancing Queen - Women leave their work to follow Streep through the streets. One woman was carrying firewood on her shoulders while her husband rode a donkey.
7 Money Money Money - As her villa crumbles, Streep fantasizes.
-from ABBA The Album
8 Take a Chance On Me - Lone wolves Rosie and Bill get together.
9 Thank You For The Music - Played as the credits roll.
10 Voulez-Vous - Climax of emotion and feverish dancing. The lighting is effective. Greek comedy and Shakespeare combine. Sophie swoons on the dophin in the courtyard.
11 I Have A Dream - Sophie's dream is to know her father. She looks out to sea.
12 Chiquitita - Rosie and Tanya try to revive Streep after she sees her ex-lovers.
13 Does Your Mother Know - Christine Baranski moves pretty good for 56.
14 Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! - Girls go for Sam, Bill and Harry as the energy builds.
-from Super Trouper
15 Super Trouper - Donna and the Dynamos relive the good old days.
16 The Winner Takes It All - Strong vocal by Streep before she and Brosnan ascend the hill to the chapel for Sophie's wedding.
17 Our Last Summer - Harry sings and plays the guitar he gave Donna in Paris.
18 Lay All Your Love On Me - Sexy duet on the beach.
-from The Visitors
19 When All Is Said And Done - The cast mellow after Streep agrees to marry Brosnan.
20 Slipping Through My Fingers - Streep helps Sophie prepare for her wedding.
The music industry labeled disco a fad even though it produced anthems like Dancing Queen. Disco records are some of the best ever. Their energy is unmatched. The beat is a heartbeat - thump thump thump. Disco is about sex. It is about freedom and fun. Maybe that is why it made enemies. Disco called a generation of baby boomers to rise above the chaos of Vietnam and Watergate. It was an incredible era. Jimmy Carter was president, and it was party time. America had no enemies, no AIDS and no Bin Laden. Only peace and love and disco!
The Mamma Mia! soundtrack went to #1 in the Billboard album charts, higher than any ABBA album before it. If disco is a fad, it is one which keeps coming back.