Remember white zinfandel? Back in the `80s, everybody was drinking it, but nobody wanted to admit it.
ABBA is the white zinfandel of pop groups. Yes, they were hugely popular: more than 370 million ABBA albums were sold worldwide during the peak of the Swedish quartet’s fame, from the mid-`70s through the early `80s.
Yet at the time, few of the musical cognoscenti would admit to listening to the group - even though everybody must have had an album or two stashed in the back of their vinyl collections. (The anti-ABBA phenomenon may be gender-based to some degree - many who were around during the band’s golden years recall women were more inclined than men to groove uninhibitedly to their songs.)
Three decades later, ABBA is finally getting the respect it deserves - not only from music critics, who have recently expressed growing (if sometimes grudging) admiration for the group’s beautifully crafted, infectiously danceable songs, but in the theater. “Mamma Mia,” a musical based on 24 ABBA songs, has been one of the most successful shows on the international circuit since its London debut in April 1999. A national touring production is doing well - as is the Las Vegas production, which is still going strong after more than three years (it’s one of the only full-length musicals to find success on the Strip).
Ian Simpson, 43, has been with the musical continually since he first auditioned in Toronto nine years ago. He estimates he’s done more than 2,500 performances of “Mamma Mia.” Simpson has thought a lot about the reasons for the show’s longevity, and for the wildly enthusiastic receptions “Mamma Mia” receives in places as diverse as San Francisco and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“I think that first and foremost, it has to be the music that draws people. ABBA were such brilliant songwriters and the songs are really well-crafted.
“Also, (the musical) came at the right time. Baby boomers were looking back and rediscovering the guilty-pleasure music of their past. And a new generation was discovering the music of ABBA for the first time - I think a lot of boomers were bringing their kids (to the show).”
Simpson also credits the show’s book, by Catherine Johnson, which manages to weave many of ABBA’s most popular songs into an elaborate story about romance, rekindled dreams and relationships, and marriage on an exotic Greek island. As her wedding approaches, a young woman’s desire to find out who her father is centers on three men from her mother’s past. They come back to the island they last visited 20 years before.
“Catherine did a great job with the writing. It’s so amazing the way she weaved the songs into the story,” Simpson said.
Simpson remembers the stigma associated with ABBA when he was growing up. But he was an unabashed fan from an early age. “I had an ABBA album in the `80s. I’m not sure I was that closeted about it. I used to dance to ABBA songs and act them out in my living room.”
Mary Jayne Raleigh doesn’t have nearly the history with “Mamma Mia” that Simpson does; she’s been with the tour only since March. “I didn’t even see it until after I found out I was going to audition for it,” she said.
Raleigh is aware that a lot of “Mamma Mia” imitators have failed. Its success caused a “jukebox musical” trend - shows based entirely on songs of revered super-groups. But “Good Vibrations,” a mindless musical featuring the songs of the Beach Boys, died quickly in New York. So did Twyla Tharp’s Bob Dylan-laced fantasy spectacle, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
“I think the difference is the story line. It’s not just, `Oh, here comes another ABBA song.’ They actually help propel the story,” Raleigh said. “That’s been a big reason why this show has been so successful.”
Raleigh places ABBA in the same category as Barry Manilow: formidable songwriting/performing talents that for some reason people are sometimes afraid to admit admiring. But the reactions she sees on the tour make it obvious to her that the ABBA stigma is a thing of the past. Raleigh was amazed by the level of feverish fandom shown in some cities.
“I’ve seen people wearing feather boas and dancing down the aisles. It’s pretty amazing. I’ve never been involved with another musical where that kind of thing happened.” (Simpson said San Francisco holds the record for unbridled audience participation.)
Her favorite part of the show, Raleigh says, is the end - a mini-concert that provides an opportunity to squeeze in a few ABBA songs that couldn’t be incorporated into Johnson’s story line.
“It’s a huge payoff. The audience thinks the show’s over and it’s like, `Oops, there’s more. Wow!’ It’s hard not to dance and sing along when we do `Dancing Queen.’ I read a review that I think sums up this show perfectly: `It’s like an anti-depressant without a prescription.’”