The advent of the jukebox musical was born with a raucous scream greeting the glorious downbeat of "Dancing Queen" in the old but new ABBA musical, Mamma Mia! Now, from Movin' Out to the Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, jukebox musicals are setting a new low standard for sweaty-palmed nostalgia, beside-the-point plots and reckless endangerment of musical theater as an art form.
So why, with all its senseless plot writing and vapid showmanship, has Mamma Mia! raked it in at the box office as the longest-touring—six years and counting—jukebox musical so far? Are audiences so hungry for musical theater entertainment that they'll award a standing O to the first pair of cute buns in bell bottoms to coo "The Winner Takes It All" in a breathy falsetto?
In a word: yes.
Mamma Mia! has, in spite of its glitter-bedecked self, managed to tap into one of the most powerful parts of modern audience minds and pocketbooks: their karaoke-soaked, wistful and maudlin music-hall memories. It's not uncommon to see fans at Mamma Mia! (or any other of the juxebox musicals of the past six years or so) mouthing the words to their favorite tunes, or mindlessly bopping along in their seats.
After six years and nearly 2,500 sweat-soaked performances as the stuffy English banker Harry Bright, 43-year-old cast member Ian Simpson still isn't bored onstage. "Really," he says, "who doesn't have a good time when there's spandex involved?"
While the most recent Broadway revuesical to trade in earlier-era pop culture detritus, Xanadu, is enjoying rave reviews (perhaps that has to do with being a little more fleshed out than the movie it's based on), Mamma Mia! runs hot and cold among critics: In his 2001 New York Times review of the Broadway opening, Ben Brantley called it nothing less than "a giant singing Hostess cupcake."
It's worth recalling that the two B's behind ABBA—Swedish singer-songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus—are also the perpetrators behind the inane cult musical hit Chess, which sank quickly on Broadway in the '80s. Perhaps Mamma Mia! is ABBA's second shot at musical-theater infamy (though there are rumors that Benny and Björn are writing and workshopping a new musical in their native Sweden...sweet!). Or maybe Mamma Mia! wants nothing more than to be enjoyed for what it is: a mindless feel-good romp that so many audience members are willing to take a chance on. .