Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Smiling, having fun, feeling like a number one

A tech guy at a conference once told me that his favourite video was for Abba’s Super Trouper because it’s the only video ever to give prominence to a techie. But there are other reasons to like Abba. Someone liked them enough to make a musical out of it, and to celebrate exactly two years of marriage we saw it last night.

Musicals are inherently ridiculous because you have to accept that people spontaneously burst into perfectly composed and memorised song and dance routines at a moment’s notice. In most musicals the songs are at least composed for the occasion. ‘Mamma Mia!’ requires you to take your suspension of disbelief one step further – people are bursting into Abba songs at key moments, by and large (and with a little rewriting) squeezing them into their circumstances.

‘Mamma Mia!’ was the first musical to be cobbled together from unrelated pop songs into a more or less coherent story. Without ‘Mamma Mia!’ there would be no ‘We Will Rock You’ or (God help us) ‘Never Forget – the Take That Musical’. If there’s ever any kind of musical Nuremberg then that fact will be the first item on the docket, but they weren’t to know it at the time.

But it’s not the first time Abba’s music has been used in this way. The wonderful 1994 Muriel’s Wedding (1994) – the film that gave us Toni Collette – was replete with it; the dippy, man-hungry Muriel announces that she wants her wedding to be ‘as perfect as an Abba song’ and you immediately know what she means. The secret is that Abba’s songs already sound like they are about an episode in someone’s life, and the two singers always put exactly the right emotion into their singing. If it was a heartbreaker like ‘The winner takes it all’, they sounded heartbroken. If it was cheerfully optimistic like ‘Take a chance on me’, that was how they did it. And so on. It makes sense that if you give those songs, only slightly adapted, to some decent actors then they will also be able to make it work.

Obviously, the show itself is cornier than an Oklahoma morning and the plot is instantly disposable. Two child actors are getting married – apparently – despite having less chemistry going than the Fleischmann-Pons experiment. The insufferable bride has three possible candidates for her father, due to a somewhat wayward youth on her mum’s part, and has invited all three as a surprise to the wedding. She is convinced – incorrectly – that she will know her dad when she sees him.

Fortunately that is just the McGuffin to get the story going and after that it’s left up to the grown-ups – Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård – to do their stuff. And do it very well – though Pierce Brosnan cannot sing. He really, really, really cannot. He can fumble his way if the song sticks within his very limited range – ‘Our last summer’, ‘I do, I do, I do’ – but I would rather rewatch Die Another Day, frame by frame, than hear him again doing ‘SOS’.

Further, like Abba themselves, they take it seriously but not too seriously. You can tell they’re having fun. (And smiling.) And even if we’re not remotely interested in the bride and groom, there is enough to engage the attention in the other characters. Meryl Streep loves her accidentally-conceived daughter and has made a lot of sacrifices to be a good mum. Her two friends are fiercely loyal and always helpful (and have you ever known Julie Walters be bad in any role?). The three dad candidates are all likeable guys, each determined to be a good father now they know that they have (at least one third of) a daughter, and they manage to be friends with each other too.

Put it this way. You smile a lot while watching it, your foot taps, and you come out still smiling at the end.

The current mix tape that I am listening to in my car is of 80s synthpop hits. ‘Together in electric dreams’. ‘Say hello, wave goodbye’. ‘Are friends electric’. ‘The model’. I’m sure something could be done with that ...


  1. ‘Mamma Mia!’ was the first musical to be cobbled together from unrelated pop songs into a more or less coherent story.

    Much as I'd like to find more things to blame on ABBA, this one isn't their fault -- "jukebox musicals" existed long before that, though Mamma Mia! did begin the current deluge.

    See Wikipedia's article Jukebox Musical for an extensive, and depressing, list.

  2. I stand corrected. However, I still draw a distinction between shows where everyone downs tools to sing a song, e.g. Buddy, and shows like this where a song is shoe horned/crowbarred into the proceedings as if that was always its intent.

    Okay, there's also Return to the Forbidden Planet ... but that's in a class of its own.

  3. We loved the stage show and are going to see the film tonight. Everyone's warned us about Pierce's singing and his hairy back!


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