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Why I am falling in love “Mamma Mia!” by Adam Corrigan Holowitz

By Adam Corrigan Holowitz, May 1, 2019

I have been accused by friends of being a theatre snob. This is actually an accusation I take pride in, a bit. It is for this reason that people are sometimes surprised that I really like “Mamma Mia!.” It is a like that, started as ambivalence and is growing towards a love.

Mamma Mia! company. photo: Dahlia Katz
The first time I saw “Mamma Mia!,” it was a tired touring production, and I was not that impressed. The second time I saw “Mamma Mia!,” it was joyous and brilliantly executed community theatre production in Windsor, Ontario. It was at that production that I started to understand how meaningful this musical is for people. After watching the Grand Theatre/Charlottetown Festival’s robust and wonderful production of “Mamma Mia!” (on until May 18), I am starting to love this silly, lovely and fun musical which has dominated commercial theatre for the past twenty years.

Before I go on I will say, I think the Grand’s production is by far the best sung and staged version of “Mamma Mia!” that I have seen. I encourage you to go.

Mamma Mia! company. photo: Dahlia Katz
There are many reasons people love “Mamma Mia!” so much. I am going to look at three of these reasons.

The first is the reason why New Yorkers love “Mamma Mia!” with an unwavering commitment. “Mamma Mia!” was one of the first shows to open on Broadway after September 11, 2001. In an interview Meryl Streep talks about seeing “Mamma Mia!” in New York in the weeks following 9/11:

“Right after September 11th, we lived downtown, the school was closed…everybody, the kids, were all very, you know kids, they were muffled and…I wanted something to really kick them back into gear and so…I opened the paper and it said ‘unadulterated joy’, and I thought okay. I called up, I got tickets and we went…by the end they were standing up with all the Japanese tourists and these old ladies and you know the whole place was rocking. People poured out of the theater at the end dancing down the street. I thought this is a tonic for New York City. I wrote the cast a letter and said thank you, you gave us back our dancing shoes.”

Mamma Mia! 5,773 performances

“Mamma Mia!” took on a special place in the hearts of many New Yorkers. This was a much-needed escape from those dark days. In the years that followed, New Yorkers kept coming back to this show. This is part of the reason “Mamma Mia!” ran on Broadway for 5,773 performances.

A second reason people love “Mamma Mia!” is representation. This is a musical where the main character, Donna, is a woman nearing, or slightly over fifty. In the beginning, we are lead to believe that the romance of the story is between the young lovers Sophie and Sky, but the second act upsets conventions when the actual romance turns out to be between Donna and Sam. The wedding that is supposed to be for Sophie turns out to be for Donna.

Mamma Mia! company. photo: Dahlia Katz
Musicals that feature strong older characters are still relatively rare, “Come From Away” comes to mind as one of the few others. Watching a musical that represents strong older women, is an empowering experience for a large segment of the theatre-going public. Also note that “Mamma Mia!” has a strong female gaze, something distinct from almost the entirety of the previous eighty years of musical theatre history.

A third reason is familiarity. The characters in “Mamma Mia!” are recognizable. They are not dealing with huge problems. Their lives overall are very ordinary. They are humourful, likable people. They are easy to connect to, if not to relate with (I mean how many of us live on a Greek island). And when you consider that “Mamma Mia!” has one of the highest rates of people attending multiple times, it is no wonder that these characters begin to feel like old friends to audiences.

Now those who know me, at this point might be saying: “Adam, this doesn’t sound like you.”

Katie Kerr, Hailey Lewis, Kimberly-Ann-Truong

Katie Kerr, Hailey Lewis, Kimberly-Ann-Truong. photo: Dahlia Katz
Yes, “Mamma Mia!” is an international musical theatre franchise, but cultural franchises are nothing new. It is an extravaganza, it goes back to what musicals looked like in their earliest days before Rogers and Hammerstein introduced naturalism to the musical. I think watching and experiencing “Mamma Mia!.” gives us a sense of what the experience and energy of watching vaudeville, operetta, Chautauqua, or the follies would have felt like during their respective heydays.

All these entertainments were commercial performance franchises, which were widely loved and attended. Like “Mamma Mia!” they were a cultural reference point that a large number of people had in common. A cultural touchstone is a joyful, wonderful thing and it is something people want to keep coming back to.

I certainly will.

Details, Details:
“Mamma Mia!”
The Grand Theatre
Apr. 23 – May 18
Purchase tickets online
Box office: 519-672- 8800

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Why I am falling in love “Mamma Mia!” by Adam Corrigan Holowitz

Keith Tomasek
1 May 2019
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