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Saturday, July 26, 2008


Not since Chicago have I experienced a greater movie musical viewing experience…until Mamma Mia!. Rent, Hairspray and Sweeney Todd all had their strong points but for the most part were seriously flawed and none more so than Phantom of the Opera. Of course I was skeptical when I first heard about the film version of Mamma Mia!. How could I possibly think that a show (that I never truly loved) written around ABBA's hit songs from yesteryear would make a good film? Let’s just say that the film far surpasses the stage version that I saw and it is a great film!

Mamma Mia! was fun, beautiful and proportionately campy (it is ABBA after all) and the music worked remarkably well in the structure of the film. Musicals I think are difficult to translate from stage to screen because of the logistics of staging musical theater is a far different beast than that of the film world. The theatre has scene changes that are intricate in their own right, films have the luxury of going on-location which can change a film’s tone altogether. It takes a director with a real vision and understanding of both the theater and film to execute a great movie musical (particularly if said musical was written for the stage).

Rob Marshall definitely had a vision when it came to directing Chicago, however I am not sure I appreciated his efforts in his small screen direction of Annie. Prior to his film directorial debut in Chicago, Marshall was known predominantly for his work as a Broadway choreographer on shows like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Damn Yankees and later as a director in shows like Little Me and Cabaret. It is no surprise then that the director of Mamma Mia!, Phyllida Lloyd is a well known British theatre director. I truly think that it takes a person who really understands theatre to direct a movie musical that translates beautifully on film. Looking back on recent films that were translated from stage to screen, the ones that were most successful were ones whose director came from the theater and not from the film world like Chicago with the exception of Susan Stroman's directorial film debut in The Producers which flopped in the box office. Interestingly enough, Stroman is an multi-award winning choreographer/director however her vision didn't translate as well on the screen as it did on stage. 

Mamma Mia! worked better as a film than a stage show and I absolutely believe that the location greatly enhanced the film. Filming on-location in Greece was in part only part of what benefited Mamma Mia!, but I think it was really about being a thoroughly thought out, planned, shot and executed film. I was impressed at how well the film flowed, how easily the songs worked into the structure of the story (which for some reason didn’t work out as well when I saw Mamma Mia! on stage – touring version). What I saw in the touring version of Mamma Mia! was less than impressive but at the time (it was in like 2001) the talent was mediocre and the energy was lackluster all of which left me feeling (for the most part) uninterested in the show. Of course a solidly written book and music is a big factor in a successful show but it takes some solid talent to execute any decent role. The talent in this film made all the difference in the world.

Let me just get this out of the way and state that I cried during Mamma Mia!. Yes, I cried and I attribute this to the brilliantly talented Meryl Streep (I’ve always been a fan). I remember thinking, “Only Meryl Streep could move me to tears in two separate scenes in a film like Mamma Mia!….nobody else could do that!” There is such a depth of emotion in her acting whether in Kramer vs. Kramer or The Devil Wears Prada that is just so intense, honest and vulnerable even. Her facial expressions come from somewhere real, deep and sincere and I am amazed everytime I see her in any role and am grateful that there are awesome actors like her out there still working.

While Meryl Streep was the standout actor in this film (each of the key roles were perfectly cast and acted) it was Pierce Brosnan whose performance was the most endearing. One wouldn’t typically think of Mr. James Bond as a singer-type in movie musical, right?  Brosnan is not a singer by any means (sorry) but his singing had so much heart and effort that was just sweet and charming. I chuckled with the first note he sang and consequently in each song. His obvious effort was really adorable and as an actor it gave more of a lighthearted edge to him.

Mamma Mia! is a great film to celebrate the summer with and I had no idea I would love it so much! I laughed, I cried, I wanted to sing along (how fun would that be?!) and I liken its appeal to Grease and know that it will be around for a long, long time.

Don't discount Mamma Mia! just because its a movie musical or just because its based on music by ABBA (heck, I loved it and I'm a self proclaimed musical theater snob). Look at Mamma Mia! as a great story that happens to have music in it. Skip out on Mamma Mia! and you'll miss 108 minutes of a great time in which you'll be smiling through most of it (unless you're crying in those 10 or so minutes like I was) -- take a chance...


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