ABBA’s music is like a drug. It is painfully addictive and listeners enjoy a big time high out of its outrageously catchy hooks and melodies. The music is also a multi-million dollar industry that no one admits to contributing to with its obscene success. After more than two decades of shame, users of this Scandinavian designer drug are entering the mainstream with the success of the Broadway musical Mamma Mia!, which is built entirely around 22 of ABBA’s songs.
The musical opened in London’s SoHo district over three years ago and is still selling out performances there, as well as in New York City, were the show premiered last fall. The touring version of the musical is now playing at Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater through April 7 and will move to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts from April 9 through April 28.
The plot of the musical is thin and offers nothing startlingly original. A young woman, Sophie, is about to get married on the Greek resort island that she has grown up on with her mother, Donna, the owner of a hotel. But she has no father to give her away at the wedding. When she reads through her mother’s private diary, she discovers that her father is one of her mother’s three lovers from the past, Harry, Bill, or Sam. Musical mayhem ensues when the three men are surreptitiously invited to the wedding and encounter their ex-lover and her daughter.
Laughable camp runs rampant throughout the play. A dream sequence features dozens of scantily-clad male scuba divers encircling the Sophie like a scene out of Jaws: The Musical. Even worse is the plan of the play’s wardrobe designers to deck out the actors in the tackiest disco-space duds of all time. ABBA themselves would probably think twice about coming near to these outfits. In typical fun-loving ABBA fashion though, they probably would slip them right on and get on with the show.
The music’s the thing in this play. Classic ABBA tunes like Honey Honey, Super Trouper, Take A Chance On Me, and the inescapable Dancing Queen are all worked into the plot. The only reason this works so well is because of the enduring quality of the original songs’ clear and narrative-driven lyrics.
“‘Mamma Mia!’ takes a new stance on musical theatre. It strays from the newly written songs, made unique for that production and brings music from another era alive, by putting it in the context of the story,” said sophomore Mike McCormick. “I want to see how well they can do it with ABBA’s music.”
What continually keeps audiences happy once the play is over is the raucous encore. It is about the closest thing that audiences will get to an ABBA concert after the group turned down a $1 billion offer to reunite for a tour last year.
The architects of the play are the very men that made ABBA what it was in the 1970s and early 1980s, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. The pair, along with business entrepreneur Stig Anderson, molded ABBA’s hits into melodic pop confections.
ABBA would have probably faltered, though, if it were not for the voices of the two lead singers, Agnetha Faltskog, a soprano, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, a mezzo-soprano. While Agnetha’s angelic soaring in songs like The Winner Takes It All seem like heavenly pop, Anni-Frid’s deeper register made songs like I Have A Dream the stuff of sing-a-longs. Together, their harmonies were impeccable.
All of the hyperboles that accompany descriptions of ABBA today may seem strange to the average American. While the likeability of their music may be arguable, the success the group encountered in their hey-day was unparalleled to anything save for the Beatles. Throughout Europe, Latin America, and Australia, ABBA surpassed the Beatles in record sales and created pandemonium during their stadium tours.
Dance music’s scintillating sounds boomed in discos across the country during the 1970s. Yet ABBA’s sugary tracks were only able to muster a solitary #1 single in the United States, Dancing Queen. The reason remains a mystery.
ABBA’s brand of electronic-inspired pop was without equal in its sheer craftsmanship and earnestness. Songs like the dramatic The Winner Takes It All and acoustic-flared Knowing Me, Knowing You are more intelligent and well produced than any K.C. and the Sunshine Band single of the era.
Perhaps it was ABBA’s shameless love for the bombastic sounds they carved out in their Swedish studios that turned off American audiences. American critics were not fans either; they have always tended to turn up a snub nose against the transient pleasures of pop. Besides, some of ABBA’s biggest songs were Eurocentric with their allusions to Napoleon, Glasgow, and walks along the Seine.
Whatever the case, ABBA’s influence is profound in today’s entertainment industry. Groups like the Australian ABBA-tribute band Bjorn Again and the teen-pop group A*Teens may have never existed were it not for ABBA. Other bands, such as U2, Erasure, Ace of Base, and Hole, continually cite ABBA as one of their biggest influences. Even the film world has succumbed to ABBA as featured in Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventure of Priscilla Queen of the Dessert.
ABBA may have endured their working days as one of the easiest to hate and critically derided groups of the day, but now more than 20 years after they called it quits they are getting the respect long due to them and their music via Mamma Mia!