I call it Webber’s Inverse Law of Expectation: the more inappropriate a musical sounds on paper, the more successful it will be. Buncha cats jumping around to T.S. Eliot-inspired poems? WIN! Victor Hugo given an cheese enema? INSTANT CLASSIC! Neon dancers on rollerskates playing trains? MOST POPULAR MUSICAL IN GERMANY!
If you were feeling particularly belligerent and uncharitable you could point out flaws in the Law, but trust me: no one is above the Law. This is because it is what Musical Scienticians call a stochastic process, in which improbable successes alter the likelihood of future outcomes – the Law is constantly redefining itself. That’s why the proliferation of dumb-sounding projects (pretty much anything with “The Musical!” in the title) usually now end a little limply. It’s why things like Jersey Boys and Wicked can slip through the gate – even though they sound like perfect fodder for a musical and should therefore spin off into oblivion, they appeared after a period in which sounding bad actually sounded good – what is known as the Musical Apoapsis or point furthest from Webber’s all-consuming star.
All of this rubbish is really the only way I can explain the seismic disappointment that is Mamma Mia. The recipe is just right: the timeless songs of ABBA; a decent story with a central mystery and plenty of broadly-carved characters; a sunny, nostalgic setting amid the Greek Islands. But mix the ingredients together and it all comes off a bit like the time I tried to invent an original Swedish husmanskost by blending my favourite Nordic ingredients of sauerkraut, lingonberries and stewed brown beans and washing it all down with many hearty drafts of beer. My stomach felt as heavy as a flatpack IKEA set and the next day I had a personal encounter with Njord, Norse god of wind.
Mamma Mia, too, is a bloated and gassy show in need of more roughage. It seems odd to complain that an ABBA musical is a bit light on content, but when you really listen to the band’s music you’ll find levels of complexity that are hard to spot now that the quartet have come to represent the cheesier side of disco. They’re like the Beach Boys – Brian Wilson’s genius is lost when you only remember his efforts via TV commercials or drivetime radio. Same with The Beatles: think of "All You Need Is Love" and you’ll probably remember the simple, chanted sloganeering of the chorus. Listen to the whole song, though, and you might marvel at how far the rest of the song travels, full of dropped beats and an ironic downer of a horn section and a broken-record ending that descends into chaos and screams and a bunch of different songs heading in different directions. You don’t really get that watching a cover of the song in Love, Actually.
ABBA’s music might not be the Beatles of Magical Mystery Tour or even the Ringo Starr of Thomas the Tank Engine but it wasn’t all kitschy plastic pop. Or rather, the groups’ image – sequined unitards and feathered hair – was counterpoised by a thick sense of melancholy that underscored most of their songs. “Super Trouper” details the band’s hatred of live performance, presenting a despairing voice “wishing every show was the last show”. “Thank You For The Music” kicks off with the vaguely miserable “I'm nothing special, in fact I'm a bit of a bore/If I tell a joke, you've probably heard it before.” And the driving pulse of “Take A Chance On Me” belies its plea of aging self-loathing: “If you're all alone when the pretty birds have flown/Honey I'm still free/Take a chance on me”. When the pretty birds have flown? I might be plain but give me a shot?
I haven’t even started on the group’s situation at the peak of the underappreciated Historical Disco movement which I invented. Along with examples such as Boney M’s “Rasputin”, “Ma Baker” and “Belfast” and Dschinghis Khan’s “Moscau”, ABBA produced a wide range of songs referring to world history in a way unimaginable in today’s pop chart. “At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way.” Whut? “Cassandra” is addressed to the mythological Greek prophesier, “Fernando” harks back to the Spanish Civil War, and “I Have A Dream”… well.
If you can’t see that ABBA were one of the last gasps of a society fast losing any sense of historical consciousness, you’re obviously one who has succumbed to the process. In my old age I’m finally beginning to agree with old grump Fredric Jameson’s assessment of the postmodern era as one whose condition results in the complete eradication of a connection with history. It’s all just nostalgia and irony, irony and nostalgia. Which, again, is just what Mamma Mia is.
Instead of a rousing engagement with the things that made ABBA so popular (or even the things that didn’t), the musical simply recycles the songs leeched of all context and much of the content. They’re strung together in ways at times embarrassing – the desperate, self-doubting lover of “The Name of the Game” becomes a daughter singing to her possible father; “Super Trouper” is delivered by three middle-aged women in silver onesies to the laughter of all watching. We even get people singing into hairbrushes while jumping on the bed. Aren’t there EU conventions confining that sort of thing to acne-cream commercials?
The new Melbourne production isn’t at all awful and there are a couple of very good performers in the mix who make things more watchable. Again, it’s an uncomfortable thing to lament the lack of depth in this musical and if you’re ok with catching an AM version of some great songs, you’ll be rewarded. If you like scenes that are purely about men showing off their six-packs you’ll also get your money’s worth of that. For all its failings, Mamma Mia sets its targets low and succeeds in hitting most of them.
But I lay the blame for those failings squarely at the feet of Benny and Bjorn for signing off on the thing. These are the guys who wrote the following lyrics just two decades earlier, and I think these words are less mournful dirge than Cassandra-like prophesy:
I'm a marionette, just a marionette, pull the string
I'm a marionette, everybody's pet, just as long as I sing
I'm a marionette, see my pirouette, round and round
I'm a marionette, I'm a marionette, just a silly old clown