Saturday, 20 June 2015

Mamma Mia! Highlights The Cynicism And Necessity Of The Jukebox Musical

The success of Mamma Mia! has proved that the jukebox musical is alive and well. But is that a good thing?

To get to the point, the latest production of Mamma Mia!, premiered at Belfast's Odyssey Arena on Tuesday June 16, was a delight.

The choreography was first rate, the sets were economical yet effective, the spot effects, when called upon, were stellar, and the acting was, as to be expected, superb, with Niamh Perry's commandingly cheery chirpiness the highlight.

The Bangor girl, once of BBC's I'd Do Anything, took to the role of Sophie like a duck to water, thriving on being the centre of attention in a choral cascade of chaos.

Once the audience lost themselves in the oh-so-familiar ABBA tunes, there was no looking back. I found myself singing along to "Take A Chance On Me", "Super Trouper" and "Knowing Me, Knowing You", and I'm not even an ABBA fan.

Like Grease, literally and figuratively, ABBA stick to you whether you like it or not, and the all too brief buzz gained from watching this musical was equally effective. It was a hugely pleasurable evening.

But. But. But.

If jukebox musicals give us so much momentary joy and excitement, what else is there to think about? Their plots feel entirely irrelevant. No one who goes to a jukebox musical seems to even consider plot, which is arguably why it's a generally reviled genre amongst the most highbrow of critics. (And one that Birdman's Riggan Thompson wouldn't even consider.)

Those who attend the Mamma Mias, We Will Rock Yous and Tonight's The Nights of this world get most pleasure from singing the songs they know so well, which are carefully, calculatedly wrapped around a narrative thread that doesn't appear to matter at all. Popular tunes sell, and you sense the producers know it, in the sort of production that feels less about art and more about business.

A jukebox musical comes across as not so much a theatrical experience as a lively recreation of a rock concert or disco. That was never more apparent than during the excitable yet uneasy encore, where a slickly choreographed Waterloo awaited us: an ABBA song that had absolutely nothing to do with the show itself.

What its presence did was ensure that every single track on the ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits compilation featured on the night. (It's true: you can check the track listing for yourself after you've seen the show.)

Hence it was, and is, hard not to feel cynical about every single well known ABBA tune being shoehorned into the script for the sake of instant, easy joy and happy clapping.

As an aside, I should point out that my favourite musical is 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, which was both a parody and a great piece of musical film in itself. It's always a delight to come across a musical that marries a genuinely humorous plot to original tunes, and South Park did just that, Marc Shaiman's songs paying homage to and satirising the classic musicals of the past in addition to maintaining their edge. ("La Resistance" was, and still is, a fantastic take on Les Miserables' "One Day More".)

Having said that, not every musical needs to have edge, or depth. And when done right (Teenage Kicks: you should have taken note!), jukebox musicals can really elevate your spirits, even going so far as to reawaken your passion for a band you once liked but tired of.

And as refreshing as South Park and its ilk may seem, the “know what you'll get” feel of jukebox musicals can be equally refreshing. We might not wish for them to be the norm – I, personally, fear that Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: The Musical will be in the West End before we know it – but the odd jukebox musical never hurts. In fact, it helps.

So hats off to everyone involved in Mamma Mia! You put on a great show. But let it not be the be all and end all of musical theatre. This genre has much more to offer than even its supporters may think.

Mamma Mia! runs at the Odyssey Arena until tonight, June 20, before playing at Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin from June 23 to July 4, and the Millennium Forum, Derry-Londonderry, from July 7 to 11. For details and booking links, visit