“Mamma Mia!” production prompts ABBA revisit

Troy University's Department of Theatre and Dance presented

Troy University's Department of Theatre and Dance presented "Mamma Mia!" last week on the Troy Campus. (TROY photo/Mark Moseley)

Last Friday, a bus load of juniors and seniors from Tallassee High School attended the Troy University production of MAMMA MIA!  It was staged at the Claudia Crosby Theatre, inside C.B. Smith Hall (named for Charles Bunyan Smith, a former president of Troy University but also the founding superintendent of Tallassee City Schools). Our students were treated to a tour of the music facilities, thanks to Dr. Diane Orlofsky and Dr. Mark Walker.  Both of them were kind and gracious, and answered our questions.  We truly appreciate the warm welcome we always receive when we bring students to Troy University.

“Mamma Mia!” has been performed on stages around the world for nearly two decades, but none of us had ever seen the Broadway version in person.  When I found out that there would be a school-day performance, I jumped at the opportunity for our juniors and seniors to see the show — after all, at Tallassee, we have 285 students in our fine arts program in a school with fewer than 600 student population, so around half of our students are involved in music.

The direction by Tori Lee Averett was phenomenal.  Tori got the most out of her players with high-energy choreography and some powerful singing.  I cannot imagine many amateur productions having the high quality of vocals and choreography that was presented here.  She didn’t do this all alone; there is a very talented team of dedicated teachers who made this possible.  I met Frank Marquette, the production manager and scenic designer, and had an interesting conversation with him during the intermission, not realizing that he was the ‘professor who worked in New Zealand’ that my daughter Michaela Bird had told me about.

While the student performers were top notch, there are two performances that must be mentioned. Professors Tommy Newman and Jesse Graham Galas blew us away with their phenomenal vocal performances.  Galas stopped the show and had our students on their feet with her rendition of “The Winner Takes it All,” while Newman’s tour de force performance of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” was about as definitive a performance as I have heard; certainly Broadway quality and far superior to the film version.  I haven’t been able to get this show out of my mind since we left the theater!

In the days since, I have been listening to a lot of my old ABBA records.  I think they are unfairly maligned for being too airy, too light, too featherweight.  True, their music may go down like sugary junk food, but what lies beneath – just like the adult-sized plot points of the musical – is often more than what it seemed on the surface.

ABBA – the acronym of the first names of performers Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad – first arrived on the music scene in the early 1970s.  Agnetha (the blonde) was coupled with Bjorn (the clean-shaven one); Frida (the brunette) was linked with Benny (the bearded one).  They were Swedish, nobody really spoke English, and mostly worked in other musical genres: jazz (Frida), folk (Bjorn), pop (Benny), and classical (Agnetha).

I suppose the music scene in Sweden is a little smaller than other places, or destiny had these four in mind, but their paths seemed to cross over and over in the late 1960s as the two couples fell in love.  In 1970, the four went on holiday to Cyprus.  While singing together for fun on the beach, they wound up in an improvised live performance entertaining some United Nations troops stationed there. 

Already armed with a record deal, their producer-manager was determined to break into the international market.  Singing in other languages paid off for them in 1973.  Other than charting hits across Europe, the foursome won the Eurovision Song Contest, one of the highest musical honors in all of Europe, in 1974.  Their songs crossed the Atlantic with their records released here during that same period.  

Their early songs were pop confections of the highest caliber: “Ring Ring,” “S.O.S.,” “Honey Honey,” “Waterloo,” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.”  These songs also had a contemporized version of the Wall of Sound style that had been popular in the United States during the 1960s, along with tuneful melodies that seemed to burrow into one’s head after a single spin.

The hits continued: “Mamma Mia,” “Fernando,” “Take a Chance on Me,” “Money Money Money,” “Knowing Me Knowing You,” and the blockbuster “Dancing Queen,” among many others that charted in the top 40 around the world.  

After a decade at the top of their game, their music became a lot more serious in the early 1980s; audiences did not seem to buy these songs and albums the same way they had done before. Tastes change, styles change,  but the darker material ABBA was releasing by then had its reasons: both couples, by that time, had divorced one another and the bitter vibe was present on the recordings.  In 1982, they stopped recording, with a final performance on a TV show in 1986.

The group has said no to millions of dollars offered them to reunite.  In the 35-plus years since their last public appearance, they have barely agreed to attend grand openings of MAMMA MIA as well as provide interviews, but that appears to be changing.  The popularity of ABBA-related material has finally given these four a chance to reflect upon how important their music has been to so many.  This spring, word emerged that there are new recordings from Benny, Frida, Bjorn, and Agnetha.  And, there is a television special that will air on NBC in the United States that is sure to be one of the highest-rated programs of the year. 

Interest remains high, and probably always will, for four people who gently approached the music industry with quality work, took over the international music scene for several years, then quietly departed and stayed out of sight for nearly 40 years.  What is amazing is that the public never forgot them – a sign that these well-crafted pop songs will continue to last.

I am not sure I understand those costumes they used to wear, though.