Mamma Mia is one of those shows that really shouldn’t work, yet somehow does. One can point out a thousand things wrong with it as a composition, but for some reason it plays extremely well and is undeniably an effective piece of theater in its own unassuming, uncomplicated way.
Most of the credit for this probably goes to the score. Mamma Mia did not invent the Jukebox Musical, but the genre was still something of a novelty when this show debuted, having been rarely seen on Broadway since its first boom of popularity in the 1970s. That said, the collection of ABBA songs that make up the Mamma Mia score are so strong, memorable and consistent that even without their pre-sold status, they would probably have made the show a hit…I can’t imagine a musical with an original score this good failing, unless it had considerably worse problems than this one.
Because their tunes were generally so relentlessly catchy and upbeat, many casual listeners have failed to catch on to ABBA’s often extremely sad and dark lyrical content. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson are world-class songwriters—these are the guys who would write the score for one of the most brilliant musicals of the Eighties, Chess, and their work for ABBA has a rich depth of both joy and sorrow under the candy-floss surface. The songs are so richly emotional that they give the show’s story the illusion of depth, and because the show’s story was specifically tailored to fit the songs, they actually make a fair amount of sense in context most of the time.
Granted, the plot is a labored musical sitcom that relies on the characters making stupid and illogical decisions in order for the plot to proceed. But what many people don’t seem to realize is that this isn’t a particularly different model from the one used in the Twenties and Thirties…the scores to those shows were usually original, but they were nonetheless strings of Pop tunes inserted into stupid farce plots. Remember that the version of Anything Goes we see in revivals now is a revision of a revision: the original book to that show was every bit as absurd as this one.
Interestingly, there was a musical from the late Seventies with almost exactly the same plot as Mamma Mia, Alan Jay Lerner’s Carmelina. Both shows claimed to be based on a newspaper article to avoid paying royalties, but both were clearly inspired by the Gina Lollobridigida film vehicle Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (the film had supposedly been based on a true story, which gave both shows a convenient loophole to avoid being called on their plagiarism). But it’s significant that Carmelina was a resounding flop because its second-tier Lerner/Burton Lane score, while pleasant, wasn’t strong enough to compensate for its shallow plot the way Mamma Mia’s score did.
The real problem with the show in its stage incarnation is the lack of genuine characters. As stated, its plot is little different from that of a typical 1930s Musical Comedy, but Thirties shows at least generally provided a colorful set of characters, and Mamma Mia really doesn’t. As enjoyable as the musical numbers are, the book lacks personality and comes across as far too generic.
However, the film version, which has attracted both wild adoration and passionate hatred from respective cultural camps, would find a way to rectify this by casting personality-rich stars in the leading parts. After all, no character played by Meryl Streep or Pierce Brosnan is going to come off as a mere cipher regardless of how they’re written. Even the newcomers featured in the film, like Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper, had far more personality than any of the show’s stage casts, as evidenced by their continued careers after the movie.
In reality, the Mamma Mia movie is an extremely satisfying film if you fall anywhere remotely near its target demographic. The jubilance can seem forced in places, but the “Dancing Queen” number is one of the most genuinely spontaneous and joyful production numbers ever seen in a musical movie.
Streep acquits herself extremely well, giving a wonderfully warm and touching performance and singing with guts and character (Streep had actually gotten her start in Musical Theater, a fact many fans didn’t realize until this film came out). Seyfried makes for a luminous ingenue, and Julie Walters and Christine Baranski have a ton of fun as Streep’s former bandmates. The men don’t adapt to their singing chores as well as the women, but even the film’s perceived biggest flaw, Pierce Brosnan’s singing, isn’t as severe a problem as it’s often made out to be. He does indeed sound awful when he has to project, as on “SOS”, but his crooning delivery on “When All is Said and Done” is actually quite lovely.
Today, despite the annoyance many people feel at the film version’s ubiquity, Mamma Mia seems like little more than a pleasantly fluffy piece of camp to most people, to the point that it’s hard to remember why it seemed so revolutionary when it first debuted. Put simply, this show scared people. It and the genre it originated have both become such fixtures by now that even people who dislike them tend to grudgingly accept their presence, but when the stage show debuted, critics and ‘serious’ musical-theater fans were genuinely terrified that it presaged some horrible takeover of Broadway by the Pop world. This obviously failed to happen, and in fact the Jukebox Musical genre only produced five genuine hits in the entire rest of the decade (this, Movin’ Out, The Boy From Oz, Jersey Boys and Rock of Ages), so in retrospect the whole thing seems a little silly. Even so, given how much of a phenomenon this show was at the time, I guarantee it would have won the ‘Best Musical’ Tony that year if the Broadway establishment weren’t under the impression that they would be doing the invaders’ work for them.