Mama Mia! Mama Mia!, The Worst Show Ever

Oh, my. How shall I put this? In younger days, ABBA somehow passed me by, and I was glad. The deadening white-bread disco beat of those wild and crazy spandex Swedes was surely a bad joke in the 70’s. But I must hand it to the creators of Mama Mia!: Nobody has ever thought of setting a modern musical in a Greek taverna to the collected golden oldies of ABBA before.

Now, why a show that’s set in Greece has an Italian title isn’t for the likes of us to ask. As Mama Mia!’s opening song puts it so sweetly:

If you see the wonder Of a fairy tale You can take the future Even if you fail

Comfort food for thought there! It’s O.K. to fail. Failing is good. Mama Mia! actually proves it. This feel-good hit musical for emotionally troubled middle-aged theatergoers in urgent need of an ABBA fix or a cupcake comes to us via England, a country that has made failure an art form for a thousand years. It’s hard on all the folks behind the ABBA musical. But the reason I left England for the warm, democratic embrace of America 20 blissfully neurotic years ago was musicals like Mama Mia!

It’s true that you do not, as a general rule, leave a country because of its musicals. But I did. There were other reasons-the usual naked ambition, greed, borderline sex.

You are the Dancing Queen Young and sweet only 17 Dancing Queen Feel the beat from the tambourine Oh yeah

But I digress. Mama Mia! proudly represents something deeply ingrained in the British psyche-the cult of the amateur. Excellence is not necessarily seen as a virtue. You gamely “have a bash” instead. If, for example, you wonder why nobody seems to be able to dance in Mama Mia!, you just don’t get it and should proceed to jail immediately. They’re not supposed to be able to dance. Because the amateur-night psychology creates the impression that you could be up there doing it, too. You could be feeling the beat from the tambourine.

On the other hand, this is a musical that has very little dancing in it. British musicals almost never dance. It’s because the middle classes of England have confused it over the years with show-jumping. But that’s beside the point here. Mama Mia! doesn’t have any scintillating dance sequences because it’s a dance musical. It’s a deliberate decision.

Why, then, would anyone in their right mind choose the collected works of ABBA for a new musical? Because all the songs sound the same. After half an hour, you imagine that you know them. After an hour, they’re one of the family-the one who never leaves. Why, at a poignant moment when the heroine gets upset, do we hear the endearingly evocative Spanish music of ABBA’s “Chiquitita”? Because it doesn’t matter. Plus the lyrics to “Chiquitita,” like all the other lyrics, can be made to fit more or less any situation in a Greek taverna.

Now I see you’ve Broken a feather I hope We can patch it up Together

The Greek taverna doesn’t look Greek, incidentally. It’s deliberate. The production designer, Mark Thompson, who’s known for his elegant work on The Madness of King George and Arcadia, has cannily created a cheap grunge eyesore of a taverna to fool sophisticates anticipating the dazzling white of the iridescent Aegean.

On the other hand, there aren’t many artists who’ve been inspired by Gina Lollobrigida in her underrated masterpiece, 1968’s Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (also starring Telly Savalas, Phil Silvers, Peter Lawford and Shelley Winters). Buona Sera is the story of three Air Force guys who could be the father of glamour girl Gina’s child, now 20 years old. Mama Mia! is the story of three guys who could be the father of glamour girl Donna’s child, Sophie, who’s about to be married in white to scuba-diving Sky in the Greek taverna.

Sophie, a somewhat conventional, prying nag of a daughter, is determined to find out who her father is. She wants things done properly. Having read Mum’s diary from the 70’s, she invites her three ex-lovers to the wedding. My bets were on Bill, described as “a heartland hottie.” But I was wrong. It might have been the one who looks like a fridge just dropped on his head, but I’m not saying any more on that score.

Mum, the disco free spirit and former lead singer of an ABBA-like rock group called the Dynamos, runs the taverna. She isn’t exactly bitter. But was a life of single-parenthood and kebabs the way it was meant to be? I don’t think so.

The winner takes it all The winner takes it all The game is on again A lover or a friend A big thing or a small

“I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“You can call me Oedipus.”

And by now I expect you must be doubled up with laughter, though pub humor isn’t always for everyone. The Gina Lollobrigida–inspired book by Catherine Johnson has nevertheless given us one of the all-time great lines of the romantic musical:

“You don’t need bagpipes to do that.”

That’s the line. Say no more! And that’s Mama Mia!, which has been directed by Phyllida Loyd very badly. It’s deliberate, of course. This is her musical debut, however, and it takes experience and great originality to be awesomely bad in the right way. The dreary dump of mediocre talent shouldn’t be confused with witty spoof and camp. In good times and bad, people deserve the very best. If, as more than a few of us believe, Mel Brooks’ The Producers is the best show you could wish to see, where does that leave dear old ABBA and this dated, careless, cobbled-together crap? No offense intended. The problem with Mama Mia! is that it’s the worst show ever and proud of it.