I went to the theater recently looking for answers, not entertainment. The question on my mind: Why do some stage shows achieve a peculiar sort of immortality while others become instantly extinct? To further my quest, I decided to bite the bullet and spend Mother’s Day at the mother of all Broadway hits — yes, “Mamma Mia!”
It takes a certain dedication to see “Mamma Mia!” For one thing, you don’t want to be recognized; I mean, why would any card-carrying member of the showbiz fraternity want to be seen buying a ticket to “Mamma Mia!” when he should rightfully be at “Frost-Nixon” or, better yet, “A Moon for the Misbegotten”?
The answer goes back to that basic annoying question, of course. As good as it is, “Frost-Nixon” will shortly close (Ron Howard wants to do the movie), while “Mamma Mia!” is forever. Or so it seems.
The statistics are downright alarming. “Mamma Mia!” has grossed $1.6 billion since its opening in 1999. It’s played 130 locations and will shortly be brought to the screen starring none other than Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan and produced by Tom Hanks’ company.
Yes, folks, we’re talking “Mamma Mia!,” a songbook show that traces its roots not to Shakespeare, but to a bunch of Abba songs — a show not even Abba wanted to see produced.
The fact that Abba, or anyone else, for that matter, ultimately signed on was a tribute to two anonymous Brits, Judy Craymer and Catherine Johnson, who have spent much of the last decade laughing all the way to the bank. Craymer was a struggling assistant to a producer who had incurred a personal debt of $35,000 in her stubborn pursuit of an Abba musical.
Though she didn’t have the rights, she talked her friend, Johnson, into writing the book. Johnson was a struggling TV writer who had recently gotten off welfare.
The four Swedish rockers with giant incomes but unpronounceable names like Faltskog and Ulvaeus still weren’t impressed. They sensed the Abba cult was still growing. Though music pros in the U.S. had been predicting that the group would imminently disappear, “Abba Gold” sold an amazing 26 million albums in 1993.
One night Bjorn Ulvaeus happened to see a production of “Grease” in London’s West End and contacted Craymer to tell her of his epiphany. His Abba music was a helluva lot better than the songs in “Grease,” he’d concluded. Why not try a show after all?
The rest is not just history, it’s mythology. Craymer and Johnson somehow patched together a mother-daughter narrative from songs like “Honey, Honey” and “Lay All Your Love on Me.”
And the critics were not so much impressed as perplexed. The Express called it “tacky,” but admitted that it was a “ridiculously enjoyable wallow.” When the show hit New York, the New York Times called it “a giant singing Hostess cupcake.” The theater community gave it a big “harrumph,” but quietly started exploring the works of Dylan, Lennon and the Doors hoping to replicate its success.
No one has ever succeeded in that objective. And last week, sitting in a theater packed with mostly tourists, I began to realize why: “Mamma Mia!” is no longer a show. It’s a celebration — with an oddly ’70s sensibility. The audience isn’t there for theater, they are there to party. On Mother’s Day they were all but dancing in the aisles.
Was it the music? Yes, but … the Abba songs are mostly non-sequiturs. They don’t fit the story. And why is everyone singing Swedish folk rock on a Greek island?
The answer: None of that matters. The cast, gifted understudies by now, is camping it up. Even “Dancing Queen,” the gay disco anthem, is played for laughs.
Is this theater? Maybe not. But it is the liveliest party on Broadway. And on this particular Mother’s Day, it generated waves of maternal bliss.
I guess that is the way it is with megahits. Being blissed out beats being entertained.