With 10 productions currently playing in major theaters around the world, and a touring group that has been on the road for three years, Mama Mia!, the musical based on a medley of ABBA songs was bound to hit Taipei eventually. Coming from highly successful runs in Shanghai and Beijing, the show will open tonight at the Hsinchuang Stadium (縣立新莊體育館) in Taipei County. Musicals have proved very popular with local audiences, with the recent touring production of the French Euro-pop musical Romeo and Juliet playing to packed houses, so it is likely that this Broadway and West End sensation will hit the right spot.
Mama Mia! premiered at London's Price Edward Theater in 1999, and despite critical indifference at the onset, became a smash hit generating revenue on a scale that has producers rushing to copy the recipe. At a press conference Tuesday, cast and crew unanimously credited the show's success to the music. "The songs of ABBA are for all time," were sentiments expressed in a variety of ways by different members of the cast and crew, who had just arrived in Taipei to set up at a venue better known for hosting sports events.
In an interview with the Taipei Times, Robert Chalmers, the production's musical director, said the show's format has been consistent. "It is the same whether you see it on Broadway or in London." Although there are plenty of ABBA tribute bands around, one of which, ABBA Fever, performed at the Taipei International Convention Center in March, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are notoriously careful about letting people tamper with their music.
One story that has done the rounds is that when Judy Craymer and Catherine Johnson, who first conceived the idea of an ABBA musical, presented the idea to ABBA, then at the top of their game just prior to the release of ABBA Gold, the rockers where unimpressed. It was only when, quite by chance, Ulvaeus went to see Grease in a West End production, that he decided to support the project, because the ABBA music was "a helluva lot better than the songs in Grease."
What: Mama Mia!
Where: Hsinchuang Stadium (縣立新莊體育館), 66 Hehsing St, Hsinchuang Stadium, Hsinchuang, Taipei County (台北縣新莊市和興街66號)
When: Tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at 7:30pm, tomorrow and Sunday at 2:30pm. Shows through Sept. 6 (no performance Monday)
Tickets: NT$800 to NT$5,800, available through ERA ticketing
That may have been the birth of one of the most popular musicals ever launched. What is true is that ever since the show hit the West End in 1999, it generated a degree of interest that had nothing to do with what the critics thought of it. When it hit Broadway, the New York Times' critic described it as "a giant singing Hostess cupcake," but this has not stopped it from surpassing Annie and Cabaret in July this year to become the 19th longest-running Broadway musical production of all time.
In describing its popularity, Chalmers said: "The way this show is written and designed, there is a feel good factor about it, and you can't but help feeling good, and you want to get up and dance and sing along. [The music] is infectious, it is great stuff."
The story itself is extremely simple and was conceived as a response to the music. The story takes place on the eve of a wedding, when a quest for the true identity of the bride's father brings three men from the past back into her life. This cross-generational plot is a perfect platform to showcase joyful carefree songs of youth such as Dancing Queen, and the more somber voice of songs like Knowing You, Knowing Me.
Even for those to whom ABBA's heyday is an adolescent memory of their parents, ABBA's songs retain their resonance. Chalmers gave the sampling of Gimme, Gimme, Gimme by Madonna in her 2005 number Hang Up as an example, saying that while on tour he had noticed many younger audience members immediately responding to the familiar lyrics and melody when Gimme was performed.