This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
That's the title song from the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia! Tonight, it will be performed live on stage in at least seven different cities around the world. It's been estimated that 30 million people have seen Mamma Mia!, but up until last night, I had not been one of them.
Mamma Mia! has played in LA three times already, first at the Shubert, then the Ahmanson and then the Pantages—and each time I skipped it. But two weeks ago, the film version arrived and like last year's Hairspray, the cinematic version of Mamma Mia! has proven to be a summer blockbuster. So last night, I went and saw the stage version and then immediately afterwards walked down the street and saw the film version. And I've lived to tell you about it.
The most remarkable aspect of the Broadway version was that seven years after it opened—and despite the fact that the movie was playing blocks away for one-tenth of the price—the show was completely sold out, standing room only. Mamma Mia! was the rare Broadway success that didn't win even a token Tony Award, but it I'd argue that it deserves the Nobel Prize in Economics, as does the professor or analyst who can discover why people continue to pay $121 to see a cast of no-names when they can see Meryl Streep and Colin Firth sing the same songs for $12.
But people are continuing to pay top dollar to see what is essentially a lip-synch contest consisting of as many ABBA standards that could possibly be shoehorned into a screwball plot. For me, the only drama in Mamma Mia! came not from the fate of its characters; but rather, would the creators somehow find away to fit the song "Chiquitita" into the narrative? (Don't worry, I won't give it away.) The best thing that can be said for the show is that it wears its bad taste and lack of sophistication proudly. Experiencing the stage version of Mamma Mia! is like a going to a friends bachelor or bachelorette party--with the dancers wearing just slightly more clothing--you may feel silly for being there, but by the end you overcome your embarrassment and console yourself that at least everyone else seemed to be having a good time.
If the live Mamma Mia! does nothing to advance the legitimate stage (besides keeping thousands of theater professionals employed over the last decade), the filmed Mamma Mia! (written and directed by the same people who brought you the stage version) does even less to advance the art of motion pictures. At least with the Broadway Mamma Mia!, one gets the sense the performers were auditioned; with the movie, it's as if they cast the actors and said, "Oh yeah, by the way, this is a musical." Despite years of seeing bad musicals, I can think nothing more frightening than the thought of Pierce Brosnan singing even one more measure of the power ballad "S.O.S."
Now, the only reason the Mamma Mia! movie is of any real relevance to anyone interested in the dramatic arts is that it stars arguably the finest screen—and stage—actress of out generation: Meryl Streep.
Streep can't be accused of phoning-it-in with Mamma Mia! During the number “Money, Money, Money (It's a Rich Man's World)” she delivers the same gusto that she brought to the caustic songs in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage on stage a few seasons back. But seeing the Vassar-educated and Yale Drama-trained thespian pretend to let her hair down and ham it up while singing ditties like "Super Trouper" and "Dancing Queen" is as wince-inducing as watching Hillary Clinton down whiskey shots with rural voters in Pennsylvania.
I'll end with a historical note: in the fall of 1975 when the song "Mamma Mia" first hit the pop charts, Ms. Streep was making her Broadway debut in a revival of a 1898 British drama. Two years later she was nominated for a Tony for her singing and acting in Brecht & Kurt Weill's Happy End. In the 30 years since, she's accomplished a great deal on film, but hasn't been seen in a Broadway musical or play. Mama Mia, indeed.This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.