Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take a Chance on Me: Why Mamma Mia!-Haters May Lay All Their Love On the Movie Adaptation

I always found it interesting that the Brits—the nationality that brought us the masterpieces of Malory, Spenser, Shakespeare, Austen, Brontë, Brontë, Brontë, Dickens, Shaw, and so many other great writers—would be purveyors of weak-booked musicals. Okay, so they’re not all weak—there’s a lot of plot happening in some of them—but they do seem to be a people who love the spectacle over logical content—Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mamma Mia!, and Bombay Dreams all come to mind.

It’s not surprising, when you see it, that Mamma Mia! was actually directed by someone with an opera background. People say that when you go into Mamma Mia! you should plan for a purely good time, check your brain at the door. When I first saw the show on tour, I thought that meant it was pure mindless fun; I didn’t realize that if you thought very much about the evenings’ proceedings, there would be too many gaping holes in the events for it to make sense. Maybe it’s not musical theatre; perhaps it’s opera pop.

Let me say that I understand the appeal of Mamma Mia!, and there’s no denying people love it. Yes, I do wish the Winter Garden was filling the seats with a brand new musical with brand new music, like one written by me perhaps, but I don’t begrudge the people who walk out of the show having had a marvelous time. And let’s face it, people do love this show and have a great time.

I actually saw it on tour having very little familiarity with the ABBA music. I had (and still have, though hardly ever listen to it) the A-Teens album of ABBA covers (which I picked up on a music-buying whim after reading a strong recommendation in Entertainment Weekly). Because of the music, my expectations were that I’d see a really fun show that made sense with lots of big dance numbers. I was disappointed. The story didn’t make a whole lot of sense—it got lost in the music—and I wondered why no one even proposed a paternity test in the end (acknowledging it would have made it okay for the characters to refuse; not acknowledging it seems illogical). Also, for such energetic music, there were relatively few dance numbers.

But of course, like some of the great literature I was required to read in high school, I knew it had to be me. I mean, just because Steinbeck’s use of foreshadowing in Of Mice and Men wasn’t clear to me in tenth grade doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I do love my Mamma Mia! CD, and I have listened to it many, many times (ABBA is irresistible, though I now have two mock-ABBA albums and none of the original recordings). But I was then prepared to catch the tour when it came to town the following year just to “get” what I had missed the first time.

Yeah, it didn’t make much more sense. Now prepped knowing what the show was versus what I expected it to be (i.e. a big dance musical), I was better prepared to enjoy the show, but I still didn’t find it a super-enjoyable night. That’s not say that I didn’t enjoy myself. It is, after all, ABBA. But it wasn’t a great theatrical experience by any means.

I don’t begrudge the concept. I don’t like the jukebox musical form, but at least here it was something original (as opposed to the copycats that followed it). I guess I just don’t care for the execution.

Still, I really wanted to write a screenplay for a movie version. I felt like the concept could work; it just needed someone who could make it lift—remove a few songs, strengthen the book, and create stronger characters.

That’s why I’m excited for the movie. I don’t think those making the movie will allow for the same errors to be made on film. I have a feeling that what we’ll get is the ABBA musical that should have been—one with stronger characters, fewer songs to clarify the story (and I believe I read that a few songs have been cut), and maybe even fresher jokes. The only sad side effect will be that the Winter Garden will get a boost in attendance, and Mamma Mia! will run forever.

So what did I find to complain about in Mamma Mia! on stage? Well, to begin with, it is worth noting that none of the characters really make a great impression. Donna, for example, is a lot of fun, but she is lacking a certain stage dynamism; she’s utterly forgettable no matter who is playing her. Compare one’s impression of the character to Rosemary, Dolly, Golde, Babe, Lola, Tracy Turnblad, or any other great, spunky musical theatre creation. Donna is flat. Because the character is not particularly outstanding, the actress never fully gets to shine. Everyone is always impressed by the final note of “The Winner Takes It All,” and it is impressive, but that is the only time the part gives the actress portraying Donna a chance to shine. It’s the Tarzan syndrome. A great actor needs great material to shine.

The jokes are pretty predictable. She’s inflating an air mattress . . . a high school student’s got that joke done. My memory is that most of the humor is of that same ilk, sophomore sexual. While popular on television, it seems too predictable (and therefore not very funny) on the Broadway stage.

Also, as many have pointed out, the audience is required to not think in order for the evening to gel. I have no problem with a purely entertaining, fun night at the theatre (like The Wedding Singer), but Mamma Mia! has too many holes. For example, I find it disturbing that Sky wants Sophie to love him like a father. Her desire to find her father doesn’t really have anything to do with him, and I don’t see how the relationship could be healthy if she’s counting on him to be husband and father. Another twisted moment to me is “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, when Sophie’s friends ravish her potential dads on the dance floor. If my friends—male or female—danced like that with one of my parents—mom or dad—I’d be a little freaked out. I no longer recall the specifics of the choreography, but it didn’t seem right to me at the time.

Again, I also wonder why no one contemplates getting a paternity test. It’s a sweet idea that all three men want a daughter and so agree to share Sophie, but the fact that no one even mentions it, even acts like there is no way they could possibly know who is Dad, seems odd.

I also have to say that I find it curious that in this feminist world—where single mothers don’t need dads, women take control, and the daughter doesn’t need marriage to find happiness—that Sophie has no problems with the implied bachelor activities Sky will take part in. Maybe I’m just an old fashioned romantic who loves his Austen and Brontë heroes too much, but I feel sorry for Sophie.

That isn’t to say that Mamma Mia! doesn’t also have its positive moments. “Does Your Mother Know” is lots of fun, with great choreography supporting a great concept, and there are some genuine emotional moments in “S.O.S.,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” and “The Winner Takes It All.”

And that’s why I’m looking forward to the Mamma Mia! movie. Movie producers are so apprehensive about musicals anyway (look how the television version of The Music Man zapped out every bit of caricature and made a comedy into a drama), I can’t believe they wouldn’t at least attempt to remedy the problems in the opera-styled Mamma Mia! libretto. The concept of Mamma Mia! is a fun one—ABBA music is pure energy—and if anything, it can’t turn out any worse than the stage show. I know I would definitely see the Broadway tour again if I only had to pay $9.00. What’s not to look forward to?

the Broadway Mouth
December 12, 2007

1 comment:

Kirby said...

I agree totally with your assesment of "Mamma Mia!" the show and the potential for a good movie musical based on a mediocre stage musical. Well done!

- kch