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David Benedict: Great musicals like Mamma Mia! confound the haters

Kate Graham, Sara Poyzer and Ricky Butt in Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre, London Kate Graham, Sara Poyzer and Ricky Butt in Mamma Mia! at the Novello Theatre, London. Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg
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“I hate musicals, I hate ’em.” So said Richard Hawley in an interview quoted last week on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row. The surprising thing about that was that it came during pre-publicity for Standing at the Sky’s Edge at Sheffield’s Crucible, a musical with music and lyrics by, er, Richard Hawley – raved about by our critic John Murphy.

To be fair, Hawley added that this was a position he’d held unthinkingly. After self-examination, he’d realised that: “Even if you’ve got the most cursory interest, you watch Oliver! at Christmas, Fiddler on the Roof, Singin’ in the Rain, those classics… and for me there’s also all the Elvis films, the Beatles’ films, because they are musicals. And I thought: ‘Hold on, I might not actually hate musicals at all. I might like a lot of them.’ ”

Hawley’s position stems from the snobbery surrounding musicals. Beyond theatrical  circles – and sometimes within them – declaring a liking for musicals tends to elicits derision. Lame ones are routinely wheeled out with cries of: “See? They’re for the brain-dead” or “They’re intellectually worthless” or that old standby: “People don’t sing in real life.”

Compare that with the response to enjoying science fiction, a genre similarly populated by both greats and the ghastly. When singing the praises of smart Star Trek reboots or the latest Star Wars incarnation, no one complains: “They’re just not realistic.” Nor does anyone brandish a gruesome example, say, the Kirk Douglas-Farrah Fawcett farrago Saturn 3, complete with woeful script by one Martin Amis, to proclaim that all sci-fi is rubbish.

There are, naturally, exceptions. Even naysayers concede there are “serious” artists at work in musicals, notably Stephen Sondheim. It will have escaped no one that two of his earliest shows, Company (1970) and Follies (1971), have been revived in London to spectacular effect. Part of the overwhelmingly positive response from people new to either show stems from the reversal of expectations. Sceptical theatregoers have been delighted to discover that, instead of sitting approximately 30 minutes ahead of the action they can, moment by moment, be challenged by and, crucially, enjoyably surprised by a musical.

Drama in both shows has always been there: Sondheim scores are not merely collections of songs, they’re sung scenes utterly wedded to their books. But directors Marianne Elliott on the former and Dominic Cooke on the latter arrived with major reputations built not on making musical numbers look and sound great but on detailing and driving text. They brought dramaturgical rigour to the work as a whole; deepening, darkening and strengthening the shows.

Yet great musical theatre doesn’t have to aspire to the condition of Sondheim. April 6 marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of a show that, like Singin’ in the Rain 46 years earlier, knitted together to winning effect a string of back-catalogue hits. It is, of course, Mamma Mia!, the brainchild of Judy Craymer, who spoke about it last week to The Stage.

Producer Judy Craymer: ‘Mamma Mia! was the dark horse that surprised everyone’

With 20/20 hindsight, an Abba compilation looks like a dead cert. Wrong. As far back as 1983, Cameron Mackintosh, no less, produced an almost entirely forgotten Abba back-catalogue fairytale musical at the Lyric Hammersmith, adding new lyrics by Don Black to Benny and Bjorn’s songs and called it Abbacadabra (NB: When I win the lottery, I’m reviving it for the joy of that title alone).

A Christmas show that ran its allotted eight-week span then sank without trace, it did well but, as Mandy Rice-Davies almost said, it would, wouldn’t it, given the casting of Elaine Paige just after Evita and Cats, not to mention 16-year-olds Jenna Russell and Dexter Fletcher. Russell is still cross they weren’t allowed the first-night present of a bottle of champagne. “We were fobbed off with Abba albums autographed by all four of the band…”. Thirty-six years on, let’s work out who got the better deal.

In previews of Mamma Mia! in 1999, just days before opening, director Phyllida Lloyd told me: “We’re trying not to take ourselves too seriously, but the ballads in particular are like little theatrical tales. We want to create an extraordinarily festive, witty, ironic, surprising bed for these wonderful songs and to make a story that releases them in a sometimes surprising way. We hope to create pure pleasure. We’re not splitting the atom.”

The following year, at a theatre conference in Toronto, about to become the first date on the show’s international roll-out, musicals snobbery was in full swing. How appalling, sneered high-minded panellists, that Toronto should house such mindless dreck.

I hope those misguided theatremakers saw the show. If they did, they might have eaten their words. It’s not just its refreshingly feminist slant, it’s the wittily knowing, completely enviable connection between the material and its audience. And you see, as the box-office receipts show, the winner takes it all.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/david-benedict

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