It’s easy to be dismissive about Mamma Mia and all it has wrought in revitalising the jukebox musical as a form but the numbers don’t lie. 17 years and counting in the West End, the 8th longest running show on Broadway (it occupies the same position on the UK ranking at the moment too), a wildly successful film adaptation that became the highest grossing musical ever…it’s impressive stuff.
And listening to the Original Cast Recording from 1999, subsequently re-released with bonus tracks for the 5th anniversary, I’d say it’s fairly easy to see why it has endured so long. For all you may mock Catherine Johnson’s book, which hangs oh so lightly on a varied selection of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ iconic music for ABBA, it actually does interesting things with it, in telling its own story rather relying on the songs themselves (I’m looking at you Jersey Boys…!)
So to say you’re better off listening to ABBA’s greatest hits is to miss the point. As light as the plot may be in its girl-wants-father-to-walk-her-down-the-aisle-but-finds-there’s-three-potential-candidates frothiness but there’s something genuinely tender in hearing ‘Chiquitita’ repurposed for two friends comforting a third, maternal lament ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ actually sung between mother and daughter, the stag v hens vivacity of ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’.
And yes, they sound different to the originals, of course they do with a full orchestra and chorus to back them up, not to mention the lack of Swedish accents. This recording is a little blessed too in having the film’s soundtrack with its interesting casting choices to easily surpass, but that’s not to take away from the delightful vocals of Louise Plowright, Jenny Galloway, and Siobhán McCarthy as the leading trio, the latter’s Donna a fabulous leading lady from heartbreak to happiness.
Plowright’s cougarish ways enliven ‘Does Your Mother Know’ no end and Galloway’s equally predatory stance toward Nic Colicos’ Bill in ‘Take A Chance on Me’ is a delight. Lisa Stokke’s Sophie, the bride-to-be is charm personified and in keeping with the show’s female-friendly ethos, her intended – Andrew Langtree’s Sky – is somewhat sidelined. For me, ‘Our Last Summer’ has always been one of my favourite ABBA songs and remains so here, ruefully sung by former rocker Harry, an appealing Paul Clarkson, and McCarthy with a gentle loveliness that seems to stand in for the show as a whole.