When MAMMA MIA! Was The Right Musical At The Right Time
It's easy to think of a drama like ANGELS IN AMERICA as being important. Years from now we may look on an adventurous and original new musical like HAMILTON as being important.
MAMMA MIA!? A smash hit for sure, but can we look on this fluffy, mindless jukebox musical as being important? If you were in New York City when Mamma Mia! opened in October of 2001, the answer is a resounding yes.
New Yorkers certainly had other matters to deal with after the events of September 11th than the financial status of Broadway. Mayor Giuliani was imploring his constituents to do their best to go on with business as usual to achieve a sense of normalcy. Grieving was necessary, of course, but tourism had grinded to a halt and hit shows were playing to small houses of people who perhaps weren't emotionally ready to enjoy themselves. (Soon those seats would be filled with first responders and their families, who were given comps.) The city launched a national campaign to bring theatre lovers back to Broadway.
Broadway's hottest new ticket was THE PRODUCERS, and while Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan's script never directly mentioned the atrocities committed by Adolf Hitler, there was always that inevitable dark edge to the comedy. The Off-Broadway hit URINETOWN with its spoofing of Brechtian detachment and plot involving people being thrown off a building, had begun Broadway previews and would open just nine days later.
But on September 12th, Andrew Coyne of Canada's National Post observed, "The Age of Irony died yesterday"; a sentiment that would soon be echoed in the pages of Time and Vanity Fair. Even the satirical daily, The Onion, went on hiatus until a time when people might find their brand of intellectual detachment funny again.
Then came MAMMA MIA; colorful, buoyant, open-hearted, filled with comfortingly familiar songs by ABBA and without a trace of irony.
In a 2010 interview for Examiner.com, original Broadway cast member Judy Kaye described the reaction from the first preview audience:
"The first preview had been sold to some corporation. At the end of the show there is what is called the Mega-Mix where we do "Dancing Queen" and "Waterloo" and all of that stuff. We dance to the edge of the stage and oft times people will get up out of their seats and dance with us. That preview night, there were dozens of young men in their suits with their ties all pulled down and they sort of raced to the stage with the kind of looks on their faces that said, 'Oh my God, we haven't smiled in days, in weeks and we need to very badly.'"
Ben Brantley's New York Times review sealed the deal:
"It is a widely known if seldom spoken truth that when the going gets tough, the tough want cupcakes. Preferably the spongy, cream-filled kind made by Hostess. Actually, instant pudding will do almost as well; so will peanut butter straight from the jar. As long as what's consumed is smooth, sticky and slightly synthetic-tasting, it should have the right calming effect, transporting the eater to a safe, happy yesterday that probably never existed."
Though not exactly declaring it a work of art, Brantley knew the medicinal value of a good sugar rush: "Those in need of such solace -- and who doesn't that include in New York these days? -- will be glad to learn that a giant singing Hostess cupcake opened at the Winter Garden Theater last night. It is called MAMMA MIA! and it may be the unlikeliest hit ever to win over cynical, sentiment-shy New Yorkers. That includes the Winter Garden's long-lived previous tenant, a show in which some scrappy cats sang poems by T. S. Eliot."
The healing power of art is often discussed when tragedy strikes. New Yorkers still pride themselves on being jaded and cynical, and anyone who rides the L train can't deny that irony is alive and well, but for 14 years, MAMMA MIA! reminded us how tasty the occasional cupcake can be.