Saturday, July 19, 2008

Lazy Sunday #32: MAMMA MIA!

This weekend will no doubt be remembered in showbiz annals for the debut of "The Dark Knight" currently smashing pretty much every box office record imaginable. And just as doubtless, the "Batman" juggernaut will inspire another sequel and more studios turning more graphic novels and comic book heroes into films for next summer and beyond.

It's likely to ignite a resurgence in noir heroes, enormously complicated villains and stories that reverberate with aspects of society that many people don't want to discuss in polite company. And that's a very exciting prospect.

But there's another film opening this weekend. It's based on about the dumbest concept you could imagine. The pitch would get you laughed out of the offices of all but the most junior and in-desperate-need-of-a-meeting development exec. And it has a plot no audience member would buy for a moment or not feel embarrassed in repeating to a friend.

Yet there is something about "Mamma Mia!" which overcomes all of those problems as it continues its own showbiz juggernaut.

In the simplest of box office terms, it really doesn't matter how well "Mamma Mia!" does by comparison this weekend, because it's already ahead of "The Dark Knight" by over Two Billion Dollars!

"Mamma Mia!" was originally conceived in 1983 by British stage producer Judy Craymer as she worked with songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (formerly of the pop group ABBA) who were collaborating with Tim Rice on "Chess".

But even she must've known the idea of building a theatrical musical around songs created by a Swedish pop group that, although written in English didn't make a lot of sense in that language, wasn't the kind of thing most theatrical 'angels' (as stage investors are known) would get involved in.

Now, there's no denying ABBA had been a very popular band selling hundreds of millions of records worldwide and touring with great success until the marriages of Benny and Björn to the group's singers Agnetha and Anni-Frid broke up.

But the songs themselves were an issue as far as what's accepted in musical theatre. To begin with, Pop hits rely on a hook, a lick or a turn of phrase that catches the imagination. Songs in musicals help tell the story and/or emotionally move the plot and characters forward. There's also usually a thematic connection between them.

But ABBA's hits were all over the map when it came to subject matter and the lyrics were almost an after-thought composed by guys whose first language wasn't English and who were more concerned with the catchy hooks and disco friendly wall of sound they achieved by overdubbing their wives' voices.

And more than that, there was this low-brow, disco aspect to ABBA. And the music was almost impossible to recreate outside a studio setting. So how do you combine lyrics that don't make sense with music you can't fully realize in a live setting and turn that into a must see evening of theatre?

Even Benny and Björn didn't think the concept would work.

But those tunes were so damn catchy that Craymer kicked the idea around for 15 more years before finally passing the nightmare off to playwright Catherine Johnson to write what's known in the trade as "jukebox musical". And perhaps figuring this was a gig better finished quick and forgotten, Johnson didn't so much create a book for the music as rehash an old Gina Lollobrigida movie she'd liked titled "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell".

So we've got the plot of a so-so comedy from the 60's mixed with a bunch of songs everybody has heard a million times being launched into a market known for lavish sets and spectacular effects. But in continuing to go against the grain, the show's producers opted for a basic modular set and the kind of lighting and effects you could pick up for a song at a discotheque fire ale.

To be clear, this was a project that everybody who worked on it loved -- but didn't really think had much more than a small chance of success.

But "Mamma Mia!" opened in London in 1999 and was an immediate and overwhelming hit. Audiences went wild, refusing to leave the theatre until some of the biggest numbers had been reprised. Within weeks the producer was advertising that the show had never brought the curtain down to anything less than a standing ovation.

By 2008, more than 30 Million people had seen the show performed in dozens of countries in eleven languages including Norwegian, Japanese and Catalan. Every single performance to this day continues to end with audiences standing and screaming for more.

Much has been made of the fact that the film version of "Mamma Mia!" stars non-singers like Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan which will reduce its box office appeal. Others warn that a film release at this time will hurt the show's relentless assault on "longest run" records in several cities. But I don't think either is a real worry.

Dumb story. Disco music. Odd lyrics. No visual effects. None of that affects the one thing that makes "Mamma Mia!" so successful. It's simply two hours of sheer joy. I'll be surprised if there aren't a few standing ovations at the local Cineplex.

Do your cultural duty and see "The Dark Knight" and then give your heart a treat and slip next door to catch "Mamma Mia!".

Among the movie's great numbers is the stage version showstopper "Does Your Mother Know". Here's ABBA's version. Wooo! Swedes in Spandex! Who cares. Enjoy your Sunday.


Ken said...

When I pose (which I am guilty of doing) I like to let my head fall forward and my eyes narrow in some Alan Ginsberg intellectual fog. If I still smoked fags I'd draw a deep toke and mumble bullshit like, Nine Inch Nails, Death Cab and Massive Attack. Party poses are good at parties, but secretly I quite liked the manufactured pop of the Monkees. Why does that shit work so well?

Even though ABBA doesn't form -in any way- my frame of reference, I completely get it. And yet I don't.

I watched "I'm Not There" last night...essentially the antithesis of "Mamma Mia." Factorytainment versus Art (or Fred, Art's cousin in this case). While I appreciated the audacity of the Dylan film I still dozed off twice. I'm sure "Mamma Mia" would have (will) kept me awake.

Perhaps sleep inducement is the true measure of Art...or Fred.

Anonymous said...

Well, we are a three-movie kind of family. Basically, we rarely see a movie together. So, when we get DVDs, its one for my son and I, one for my wife and I, and one for either just me, or just my wife, or just my son.

Actually going to see a movie is much the same. This weekend, it was my son and I seeing "Dark Knight" (and everything they said about Ledger is true, BTW).

Next week, my wife and I will see"Mama Mia". I kinda owe here after dragging her to see "South Park"...

But, I'm already set, I've seen the stage show. Twice. Most of the cheesy songs are still cheesy, but it kinda worked. Its froth, but well-produced froth...