Sunday, August 3, 2008

Mamma Mia! It's ABBA But Is It A Musical?

After years of (a much-ignored) silence, I have decided to comment on the explosion in ABBA interest that took off in 1996, the year I stopped pushing modifications to the Internet's own ABBAnatic: The Alternative ABBA Web Page. (More on that later.) The ABBA interest skyrocket culminates this summer with the release of Mamma Mia!, the movie musical based on the Broadway musical based on the songs of ABBA. Now sure Mamma Mia! is a whole lot of fun to watch (especially with an audience so get some friends to go with you) but as a dramaturg I say to you: it's ABBA but is it a musical? Don't let your bell bottoms ring too loudly yet because, before getting into the meat of the thesis, I display my ABBA cred.

  • 1975: I've been a fan since I first saw them perform on the Mike Douglas Show. (Toby, my mother, was a big Douglas fan - thanks, Toe.) I bought Greatest Hits although, due to the geographical location of my parent's house (North America), I did wonder how a first album can also be a Greatest Hits collection.

  • October 2, 1979: a dream come true when I see ABBA live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City from the tenth row. None of my friends wanted to go so I ended up taking a boyfriend from the night before. Good times.

  • 1992: start writing and graphic work on the Internet's first site devoted to ABBA, ABBAnatic: The Alternative ABBA Web Page including the much-lauded Official ABBA Bootleg Page. Erasure releases ABBA-esque later that year.

  • 1993: write and begin performing one-man show, Funny Guy, which uses Thank You for the Music for its final.

  • 1994: more pages (including Ring Ring Wrong Wrong: A Controversy and The Complete ABBA Lyrics A - Y) are added and the site's footprint increases as ABBA Gold, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding are released.

Following my trip to Sweden, I stopped major modifications on ABBAnatic: The Alternative ABBA Web Page. How does one top The Girls Without The Guys: Agnetha and Frida Post-ABBA? As the Internet grew, the number of ABBA sites being created grew. I'd already said everything I needed to say so ABBAnatic: The Alternative ABBA Web Page went silent but remained relevant as the upsurge in ABBA interest and related sales really took off. Are these timings irony or, cause and effect? I'm just asking. I could be the American Görel Hanser.

Now, my dramaturg cred.

Do I need more? Then let's on.

I've gone to see Mamma Mia! three times now. (I do that with film musicals so Hollywood will continue to finance them.) The book - spinning the tale of a single mom, her nineteen year old daughter, and the three men who, one of which, might be her father - bears a close resemblance to the story line of the film Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell.

So, I wonder why the book couldn't be more arresting if it was aping this charming (from my misty memories) film. The Mamma Mia! book exists for the sole purpose of moving the viewer from one ABBA song to the next. Although the bright and bouncy tunes of Benny and Björn (and sometimes Stig Anderson) shine through, these musical vignettes (the word video is already taken) differ in how they adhere to the rules of musical theater and dramaturgy.

The ABBA songs that work best as show tunes in this musical comedy are Money, Money, Money, Mamma Mia, Chiquitita, Dancing Queen, the Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)/Voulez Vous medley, Does Your Mother Know and Slipping Through My Fingers. These are character-driven songs which propel the plot (as it were) forward while further revealing layers of the emoting characters. Money, Money, Money as sung by Donna (Meryl Streep) is a paean to the working class and introduces us to those in her life, her friends Tanya and Rosie (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) and the characters of Villa Donna in the Greek Sporades Islands (a Greek chorus, if you will). It's an excellent song, used wisely within the context of the book, that is also an old-fashioned production number with some stunning shots of La Streep and a twenty foot train at the bow of a ship (a la Titanic).

I've got you now, my pretties!

Meryl follows Money, Money, Money with Mamma Mia, a spotlight production that reveals Donna's deep, dark passion in an energetic and humorous ensemble piece. Although it seems to come a bit too early in the story, it does play an important role in the characterization of the relationship between Donna and possible dad Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Mamma Mia is followed by an interesting and very satisfying version of Chiquitita in which Tanya and Rosie offer humor and pathos to a forlorn Donna. The song works unexpectedly well within the musical comedy framework and is performed brilliantly by the leading ladies. (And with its inclusion seems poised to generate more dinero for UNICEF. In 1979, ABBA donated all royalties received from Chiquitita to UNICEF, raising millions with the gesture.) Shockingly, Chiquitita is NOT included on the CD soundtrack. My guess is that Meryl's crying and her mucus sniffing got in the way of the vocal. The song also doesn't technically end - the last line is replaced with Meryl's dialog, "It's her Dad." Here is the scene.

This clip from the movie was pulled from YouTube because of copyright violations a few days after its upload. If it's gone from this embed window again, click here to open it in a new window from my web site.

It is obvious that these three older actresses are carrying this movie - an amazing feat of accomplishment by the creative team in agist, sexist Hollywood. Kudos to director Phyllida Lloyd, writer Catherine Johnson and producer Judy Cramer - three, if I may be so bold, older women themselves. Ain't nothing wrong with that!

These female-driven songs are followed by the ultimate production number to the ultimate female-driven ABBA song, Dancing Queen. The give and take between the femme cast members, the Greek chorus, and the whole town involved in this newly-minted anthem about empowerment becomes uplifing and relevant. The number also boasts the first appearance in the film of a member of ABBA: Benny takes to the 88 for the famous Bada bada bada, looking suspiciously like a seafaring W.C. Fields. The video below mashes up the Dancing Queen sequence from Mamma Mia! with footage from the original ABBA video. It's an excellent example of how close the orchestrations used on the soundtrack are to the originals. Most of the songs are faithful renditions with the actors fronting an orchestra that contained many of the same musicians that played on the original recordings with Benny producing. Kudos to the videographer. (Benny can be seen at 2:58 in the video.)

The Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight)/Voulez Vous medley is a perfect complement to the bachelorette/bachelor parties the night before the wedding. The ladies start the party with the former tune and are then joined by the men for the latter as all hell breaks loose. The Name of the Game, sung by Amanda Seyfried (Donna's daughter, Sophie) and Stellan Skarsgard (possible dad Bill) was removed from its place between between Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight) and Voulez Vous. (The track appears on the soundtrack CD in the correct sequence.) The former scene's inclusion between the latter songs in the film would've definitely slowed down the party. As edited, it is a ball joined in by the entire company. Here's the actual music video (not film vignette, remember?) with Amanda singing Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight).

Meryl and Amanda's Slipping Through My Fingers is a lovely duet between the mother and daughter. Originally sung by Agnetha Falkskög, it's always been a meaningful song when heard as an ABBA track; it's placement in Mamma Mia!, as Donna readies her daughter to be married, adds phenomenal depth to the book and the characters' relationship.

Immediately following this moment of poignancy, Christine gets loud and raunchy singing her distaff version of Does Your Mother Know to a slew of hot, young men on the beach. Although her campy delivery and the crazy dance steps (which I secretly covet) seem a tip o' the hat to the gay community (with La Baranski herself something of an icon from her performances in Cybill), the lyrics are also surprisingly relevant in expanding character depth. Tanya is just a riot! But, let's flip the coin here and show a video of ABBA performing Does Your Mother Know live with Björn on lead, real instruments and everything!

Not so lucky in the dramaturgy department is Honey, Honey which Sophie sings about her unknown father. Considering this is the first full-length song of the film, the lyrics are laughable and immediately oft-putting. You're a doggone beast? You're a love machine? To a man who is supposed to be her father? Maybe Ring, Ring would've worked better. Maybe Take A Chance On Me to the three men who don't know they have a daughter? Or even, although I'd have to re-read the lyrics to be sure, I've Been Waiting For You has a song title that seems ready-made. Although it was probably a mandate to start the film with an uptempo tune, some extra thought might have made the scene work better.*

Even one of my favorite ABBA songs, The Winner Takes It All, stops the film's forward motion. Streep sings the song powerfully but the plot points have already been addressed in the songs Mamma Mia and SOS. More importantly, it makes Donna seem flighty and feels as though her character development is taking a step back. Even Sophie gives her mom an exasperated look when she arrives late to the wedding (because she was singing The Winner Takes It All); here is, unfortunate to write, a song that should have been relegated to a deleted scene on the DVD.

Hurry, girlfriend! You're late!

The dancified Lay All Your Love on Me is sung on the beach by Sophie and her fiance, Sky (the invisible Dominic Cooper). It contains what seems to have become the most controversial scene in the movie: Sky's bachelor party friend's in flippers and swimsuits dancing on a pier. The dance is funny and cute, working in the same vein as Tanya's aforementioned hoofing. And the song works fine here but, to tell the truth, they relegated Waterloo, arguably ABBA's greatest hit (and 1974 Eurovision winner), to an encore over the credits when it could have been used as the couple's love song to better effect...unless the author felt that teens today would not know what Waterloo was. Not buying it though. (If true, teens today are not studying.) The encore version of Waterloo does though include the second appearance in the film of a member of ABBA: Björn can be seen as a Greek god holding a lute. In honor of the song itself, here's ABBA singing Waterloo in French.

Colin Firth (possible dad Harry) takes the first swing at the beautiful Our Last Summer to sing (sounding a little like Björn) about his history with Donna. Though not initially called out as a top-notch show tune, Our Last Summer works brilliantly with three lead vocals when Sam and Bill take over the lyrics to reminisce about their history with Donna. It's a sweet take on a lovely song that provides further details about these men and their history with Donna. Pierce also does a good job speak singing When All is Said And Done which deserves applause because my favorite ABBA song is finally used in Mamma Mia!. It doesn't deserve the applause though because the song is about breaking up and neither Pierce nor Meryl are going anywhere. (It does appear towards the end of the movie so maybe that is what is done.) Pierce also duets with Streep on SOS; he has been drubbed for his vocals but I think he unlike Benny. (Irony or cause and effect? I'm just asking again.)

Mamma Mia! Men!

Super Trouper is an interesting song and another personal favorite. In a musical comedy format, it can really only be sung by an entertainer - considering what a super trouper actually is; so the leading ladies get it together to sing the song they used to perform when they were Donna and the Dynamos. It fits well in context - unlike Rosie's Take A Chance on Me which seems to have been stuck at the end because it was a number 3 United States hit and would've disappointed the fans if not there.

Take A Chance on Me does not feel integrated with the rest of the story. Julie is freakingly funny (loved the Bangles t-shirt she wore upon her arrival on the island) and the scene, with Skellan, adds a light touch to the tune although it might have been better placed, in this context, earlier in the film. Another option would have been to make more of a possible relationship between the two lone wolves earlier in the film. Even more disappointing than how the song was integrated into the book is that the version of Take A Chance on Me available on the soundtrack CD is different from the version used in the film. On the CD, Julie's voice is almost unrecognizable, mixed with the comapny - in the film, her vocal is sweet and nervous and front and center. Speech. Speech. That is the version that should have been immortalized on the soundtrack CD just as they did with Does Your Mother Know?, the other 'older woman that isn't Meryl' solo. Maybe someone thought it wouldn't sell records (yes, records) but isn't it selling tickets?

I guess he's not that invisbile.

Portions of other ABBA songs used throughout the film include:

  • Amanda's version of I Have A Dream begins (in a prologue version) and ends the film's narrative.

  • An instrumental Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (A Man After Midnight) is scored over a montage of the lead hommes arriving in Greece and at Villa Donna (and finished during Honey, Honey).

  • An instrumental Waterloo is scored over a montage of the lead femmes arriving in Greece and at Villa Donna.

  • There is an interpolation of Knowing Me, Knowing You as Sophie shows her three dads into the Old Goat House. As an aside, Knowing Me, Knowing You is glaring in its absence from the film.

  • Streep hums Fernando as she walks into the Old Goat House.

  • I Do (x5) is partially sung by Pierce and Meryl towards the end.

  • A wet and wild reprise of Mamma Mia follows Aphrodite's eruption at the story's end.

  • Donna and the Dynamos, dressed in platform boots and sparkly, spandex clothing, perform Dancing Queen as an encore after the end of the film's narrative. It is as redundant as this bullet point.

  • The encore Waterloo follows the encore Dancing Queen with the rest of the cast in spandex joining the Dynamos; this song deserved integration into the book. Knowing Me, Knowing You could have then been the final encore.
    We just have to face it
    This time we're through
    (We're really through)

  • Thank You For The Music is sung sweetly by Amanda over the end credits unlike this version.

Rare footage of the aforementioned Thank You for the Music finale from my 1994 multi-mediacal [sic] show, Funny Guy. Yes, its multi-mediacal (just look at the mediacals behind me) but even I admit that it sounds like a duet between Benny and Agnetha.

Possibly the only non-ABBA music in the film (not non-Benny/Björn, I suppose) is the interstitial wedding music played as the bride walks down the aisle. I didn't recognize it as an ABBA interpretation. Couldn't they have used Arrival? I also heard some tick, tock type music when Donna is setting the table that didn't sound particularly ABBA-esque either.

Hypnotically beautiful black and white photography

From a cinematic point of view, Greece has never looked so flat; it doesn't come off as hypnotically beautiful as one would assume. Maybe it was the movie theatre. (Same one. 3 times.) Even the black and white Never On Sunday (also filmed in Greece) had more depth and beauty to its cinematography. Except for the lighted path to the church and the Dancing Queen number, the scenery seemed uninspired. On the other hand, the choreography, though cheesy, works in context and the cast is uniformly good. Meryl was born to play this role although I can't see her getting the Academy Award - the movie is just so much fluff and it doesn't really seem a hard part to play. Colin was quite adorable. Love Amanda (Veronica Mars, Big Love). I predict Christine to pick up a prize at year's end. Julie - always a pleasure from as far back as Educating Rita. Pierce - lucky dog. Skellan - token Swede whom I loved in The Exorcist: The Beginning. (Not really but I did see the movie.)

Prince of Wales Theatre (London) where Mamma Mia!, the show, premiered.

Mamma Mia! is delightful fun (uh, 3 times) and everyone involved has the world's appreciation for bringing ABBA's timeless tunes to the fore but to answer the titular question, Mamma Mia! doesn't get high marks as a musical. The story is a pastiche - never digging deeper than needed to propel us to the next ABBA song. I understand that Mamma Mia! is part of a genre referred to as jukebox musicals and people go for the music but I've always been a lyrics kind-of guy. I believe the story kinks could have been worked out and possibly put Mamma Mia! on a par with CHESS and Kristina från Duvemåla - neither of which, in the spirit of disclosure, has made anywhere near the amount of money that Mamma Mia! has.

Wait. I've got it. I'll write The Winner Takes It All: Another ABBA Musical. It'll be about a couple living in Las Vegas and going through a divorce and one of them wins the lottery. There will be so many levels to these characters and the book will be deep and involving. Oh, but it's got to be after the one I'm writing now. (Is Sondheim reading this?)

I deserve a Ph.D. in ABBA for this.

* UPDATE: I received an email from a friend that read simply: I thought that Amanda was supposed to be reading from her mother's diary, and that's where the [Honey, Honey] lyrics were coming from. Well blow my nose with a rubber hose. As Emily Litella used to say:

There goes my Ph.D.


  1. An exhaustive history and analysis of ABBA. I am impressed with Mr. Teger's writing skills and his true love of ABBA.

  2. Why thank you, sir or madam. You should also be impressed with the amount of time on my hands as I try and sell this house.

  3. Why isn't your photo on the Mama Mia poster? It's a travesty! Just who do those publicity people think they are??? I'm outraged that they left you out! Just outraged!

  4. Hey Michael, great post!

    The wedding march is Knowing Me, Knowing You - the end of the chorus and start of the instrumental refrain.

    The "tick tock" music when Donna is setting the table is the intro of Under Attack, without it's stand-out bass riff.

    There's also a medley of Does Your Mother Know and Take A Chance On Me underscoring when Tanya and Rosie are on board the ferry heading to the island, and you haven't mentioned the instrumental Does Your Mother Know (that sounds for all the world like it's performed by BAO) after Thank You For The Music in the end credits.

    There is no non-ABBA music in the film. There's even a credit for "Additional score by Benny Andersson", even though *all* the score is variations on ABBA melodies.

    I disagree with your conclusion about When All Is Said And Done. Though it was inspired by a break up, with the removal of some of the lyrics and the addition of the new verse on the CD, it takes on a whole new context of reconciliation.

  5. Thanks Ian for adding some more info to the blog. Some of what you wrote I found in my movie notebook and just neglected to type it in. I did not, though, recognize Under Attack as the tick-tock. As for WAISAD, well, that's what makes horse-racing, huh? Being one of my faves, I was not to pleased with the lyric change. But I sure loved the movie.


  7. Thanks, Ma...for more than this comment.