Nostalgia and Innovation in the songs of "Mamma Mia!"

Term Paper, 2012

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Mamma Mia! as a Jukebox Musical
2.1. The Jukebox Musical
2.2. ABBA’s success story
2.3. Mamma Mia! as a jukebox musical

3. Beyond the jukebox? ABBA songs reinterpreted
3.1. Adding comedic elements
3.2. Enhancing the role of women

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

When Mamma Mia! opened in theaters in the summer of 2008, many reviewers were less than enthusiastic about the film adaptation of the popular stage musical. While the storyline of 20-year old Sophie living on a Greek island with her single parent mother and embarking on a quest to find her father was declared to be flat and incoherent (“No film has ever had a more irrelevant story” (Bradshaw)), the cinematic realization of the stage version has similarly been regarded as unsatisfactory: The “craft and technique [of] `Mamma Mia!´ proves to be remarkably shoddy, a tangle of clumsy cuts, mismatched shots, bad lighting, egregious overdubbing and scenes in which characters appear to have been haphazardly Photoshopped into the scenery” (Scott). In spite of critics’ dismay, however, Mamma Mia! achieved great box office success. By grossing a total amount of $609,841,637 (foreign markets attributed for 76.4%), Mamma Mia! made it to an astonishing number 5 on the list of the 2008 worldwide grosses (Mojo).

This discrepancy between reviewers’ predictions and the actual perception of audiences raises the question of the origin of Mamma Mia!’s popularity. Ashley Elaine York categorizes Mamma Mia!, amongst others, as a “new breed of women’s giants […] best be described as `women’s blockbusters´ and touted as the newest conglomerate trend” (4). Thereby, she extends the term blockbuster which is a marketing term to promote a movie and shape audience’s expectations by promising “action, stars, and special effects” in order to generate large economic profits explicitly to female narratives (Corrigan 47). According to York, the “woman’s blockbuster” fulfills the following criteria. Firstly, its story is “high concept” (8). It is easy to translate and has an “immediate and wide-reaching appeal” (9). This can be applied to Mamma Mia! for its plot speaks to different age groups and nationalities, being set on a secluded island devoid of any social or political commentary. Part of this wide-reaching appeal is also the use of properties well-known by audiences such as popular actors or a particular type of music, both of which is given in Mamma Mia! due to big names such as Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan and ABBA music (10). Secondly, those films feature “the theme of validation.” Depicting women attempting at and succeeding in following their dreams enables audiences to identify with the characters (15). It is easy to see that Mamma Mia! foregrounds both Donna’s and Sophie’s journey towards self-realization whereas the love relationships are merely subplots. Keeping the highest possible profits in mind, the third criteria consists of the franchising potential including the release of a soundtrack, special edition DVDs, internet campaigns, etc. which is also given in Mamma Mia! (16).

While this relatively broad definition of the woman’s blockbuster and its keys for success is applied by York to different genres and will also be considered, this paper mainly sets out to look at several of its aspects from the point of view of musical studies. Particular emphasis will be put on the use of the well-known ABBA music and its function within the movie and for audience’s reception and involvement as the categorization of the film as a so called jukebox musical will be discussed. Thus, the following questions will be investigated in the course of this paper: Can Mamma Mia! be classified as a jukebox musical, deriving its success from its nostalgic representation of the much loved ABBA music, or does it go beyond this classification to reinterpret the songs in an innovative fashion?

In order to answer this question, the first part will begin with setting the framework for analysis by introducing the term jukebox musical and the contextualization of ABBA and popular music. Furthermore, it will be investigated in how far the criteria of the jukebox musical fit the movie Mamma Mia! Exemplified by a choice of songs from the film, the aspect of nostalgia proposed by the jukebox musical will be analyzed.

The next part will then contain a look beyond the categorization of Mamma Mia! as a jukebox musical as it proposes a repurposing of the ABBBA songs rather than merely a reproduction. Significant changes to the original presentations of the songs and its implications will be analyzed. These changes include the addition of comedic aspects to the songs as well as an enhancement of the role of women.

2. Mamma Mia! as a Jukebox Musical

With Mamma Mia!, the most successful musical in the world was to be adapted to the big screen (Taylor 161). Despite critics worries, it proved to be a great success. The following section will introduce the term jukebox musical as well as the sensation that is ABBA. The focus of discuss will not stem from an economic analysis but will consider it from the vantage point of audience identification, pleasure and the creation of an emotional involvement.

2.1. The Jukebox Musical

As a subgenre of the film musical, jukebox musicals, sometimes also called catalog musicals, “string together preexisting songs by a popular artist or group with the aid of a unifying (often frivolous) plot” (Knapp 121). While this procedure is not new since the related musical form of the revue has been popular in the early part of the twentieth century (Taylor 149), the jukebox musical’s “own golden age” began after 2001 (Knapp 121). In this type of musical, the importance of the music itself is overriding that of the plot, so that it is “the familiarity of the musical materials that creates the attraction for audiences” (Taylor 151). Since musical scholarship is said to usually stress a “linear narrative as the defining feature of the combined musico-dramatic text” and evaluates the integration of musical numbers by “looking first at the plot and then questioning how the songs support it,” the term jukebox musical is often denigrated as less interesting than other types of musicals (4). Moreover, it is in some instances regarded as a musical of lower quality. In his study on musical theater Scott Miller snidely remarks: “Theater is the noun, the subject; musical is just a modifier. By definition, the storytelling is primary.” Since jukebox musicals weave the plot around existing songs, Miller accuses them of “weaker, often contorted, or shallow storytelling” (256). The sheer goal of profit maximization which may in some cases be aimed at by producers marketing a musical to a large audience and capitalizing on a particular artist’s fame is also criticized in jukebox musicals (Everett 168).

The crucial aspect of the jukebox musical is the audience’s knowledge of the chosen music as “they enter the theater familiar not only with the era but also with the songs themselves” (Knapp 121). Thus, this form of musical “allows intertextual and personal associations” (Taylor 152). Consequently, each member of the audience has individual and very distinct experiences and feelings when hearing those songs. On top of that, the chosen songs, being taken from one particular artist’s oeuvre, often represent a certain era, therefore encouraging a collective memory. The audience has a sentiment of nostalgia, a bittersweet feeling of longing for the past, as they are “removed from their everyday lives, to relive fantasies and memories, and to participate in singing and dancing” (152). The audience is no longer just an onlooker of the show, but a participant in the creation of the songs that are not simply “amplifying and expanding on their context.” Rather, “they leap from it and make connections with other parts of the audience’s lived experience” (162). According to Jane Feuer, the musical has a “desire to capture on celluloid the quality of live entertainment [and] seeks to bridge the gap [between performer and audience] by putting up `community´ as an ideal concept” (Feuer 2-3). The subgenre of the jukebox musical is then certainly assigned to this concept as the participatory audience is mutually connected through nostalgic but happy sentiments. Yet another dimension to nostalgia applies not only to the audience’s memories but also to “the legacy of many composers that have created” the songs coloring the artists’ career in hindsight (Knapp 122).

The term jukebox musical is often used in the same context as the compilation score, an expression referring to a music score “comprised of [popular] self-contained songs which were usually prerecorded” (Reay 28). While the jukebox musical is definitely a compilation of a particular artist’s songs, the definition of a compilation score is looser as it also applies to non-musical films and a compilation of songs by different artists. In addition, the study of compilation scores seems to be slightly more technical as it contrasts compiled and composed scores and investigates ways to integrate preexisting songs into the plot (38). Since the aspects of nostalgia and audience participation and identification will be of importance in this paper, the term jukebox musical will be employed in the following.

2.2. ABBA’s success story

[S]ay the word ABBA and people around the world, of all generations, think instantly of fun and frolics, of ebullient pop music that lifts your heart to the chandeliers, then, with a swoop, of one of those melodramatic ballads, leaves it swinging there (R. Scott 153).

The Swedish group ABBA (an acronym for the two married couples’ first names- Agnetha Fältskog and Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad) has become a music sensation long exceeding the ten years of performing as a band. Since their win in the European Song Contest in 1974 they have sold more than 410 million records worldwide and are regarded as “the first Swedish band to really look beyond the limitations of the Scandinavian market by thinking internationally” (Burnett 146). While they were very popular in Europe and Australia very early on, it took them until 1976 to take foothold in the American market with the release of “Dancing Queen” (R. Scott 73). Although the USA remained the country ABBA was least popular in, at “the height of their popularity they had ten Top 20 singles,” speaking for their immense success (Womack 203). With Agnetha and Anni-Frid doing the lead vocals and Björn and Benny composing the songs, they produced a “unique Euro-pop sound, employing solemn verses followed by explosive choruses” (Mansour 1). Being described as a “press-friendly band driven by an aggressive marketing machine,” a lot of personal information concerning the band members was made public. Combined with the phenomenon of a dramatic performance causing “spectators to seek information about the personal life of the performer,” seeing this information reflected in the songs and thus regarding the performance as “biographical,” audiences very quickly identified with the group (Womack 203). They felt with them in times of marital bliss, huge success and eventually the failure of relationships and the end of performances, all topics that were dealt with in ABBA’s songs.

Very similar to the Mamma Mia! stage musical and movie that would later incorporate their songs, ABBA’s music received “phenomenal popular success” but at the same time “critical disdain” (Womack 202). Although they are seen as having been underappreciated by critics until the mid-1990s and success was already waning at the time of their last album release in 1982, in the last twenty years ABBA music underwent a “transition from kitsch to cool,” being revived by means of several tribute bands, movies using their music and obviously, the Mamma Mia! stage musical and film (Mansour 1; Womack 202). Consequently, ABBA appealed to a new generation of listeners as “their songs won over a whole new audience (and rekindled the spark in the old one) (R. Scott 138).

Furthermore, the “kitsch” ABBA represents has been embraced and further exaggerated. ABBA’s performance itself is already described as a combination of “a total pastiche of musical styles together with a 'camp' style of dressing” (Burnett 146) and matches Susan Sontag’s definition of “naïve” or “pure camp” which is not intentional, but “dead serious.” Popular ABBA tribute bands like Björn Again and Erasure, however, exemplify ABBA’s gay following and the mixture of “homage and parody” with which ABBA songs are often presented nowadays (Vincentelli 22). The emphasis on the “strongly exaggerated” becomes apparent as trademark ABBA outfits, accents, etc. are imitated (Sontag). Yet, this is not indented in a harmful way but rather done with “affection and faithfulness” (Vincentelli 22) which not only the audiences but also the filmmakers seem to share.

2.3. Mamma Mia! as a jukebox musical

The stage musical of Mamma Mia! premiered in London in 1999 sporting a storyline that would be changed only slightly for the 2008 movie version. This musical with its plot written by Catherine Johnson around already existing songs seems to be a prime example of the jukebox musical. The chosen songs are exclusively taken from ABBA’s established oeuvre as no completely new material has been composed for the movie. Regarding the relation of plot to music, one can also affirm a privileging of music over plot. Although screen writer Catherine Johnson recalls Benny Andersson’s advice: “You can use any of our songs, but always remember that the story is more important than the songs,” the storyline is not too complex and challenging (Andersson 144). York sees the advantage of a simple plot in the context of a successful blockbuster. According to her, the storyline can be summarized in “a single-sentence catchphrase,” a hook, which offers a huge marketing potential (8). Yet it is this simplicity which scholars such as Miller would assess as shallow, or, “mindless” (257). Although the appeal of the plot is a matter of personal taste, it is nevertheless safe to say that it is the music, and not the plot, which is drawing audiences to the movie theaters. The release of the movie fueled yet another ABBA boom as movie theaters created happy Mamma Mia! sing-along screenings and not only the sale of the movie soundtrack, but also of original ABBA albums, soared1. Hence, the jukebox musical’s characteristic heightening of a performer’s “legacy” can also be confirmed (Knapp 122).

This particular music is known all over the world and spans many different generations: “its cross-cultural impacts links European drag queens and Midwestern housewives, New York hipsters and Japanese Students” (Vincentelli 1). Thereby, it also confirms to the jukebox musical’s requirement of a knowledgeable and recognizing audience. Since ABBA was performing in the 1970/80s but has also been present in audience’s minds trough tributes and the outstandingly popular stage musical, its music has a universal appeal which guarantees for an audience consisting of different generations. This leads to the assumption that at least a large majority of theatergoers have their own emotional connection to ABBA and associate particular memories upon hearing their music. Subsequently, audiences supposedly experience a feeling of nostalgia, a desire to “return to a `younger, more innocent, less jaded´ time” (Knapp 120). The movie, then, is a means of escaping the present, everyday life and supposedly animates audiences to participate in the singing and dancing.

The movie Mamma Mia! lends itself very well to this criterion. From the very first moment of the movie, when audiences follow Sophie’s boat ride to a beautiful secluded Greek island, accompanied by the lyrics “I have a dream,” recognition as well as an instant distance from real life, and thus longing for this setting, is established. From then on, the setting of this stunning island is presented in vibrant and warm colors. The mise-en-scène in indoor scenes including aspects like set, props, and lighting seems slightly cluttered, rustic but also lovingly furnished and welcoming. This is purposefully aimed at the “discontent with the present” which nostalgia also encompasses and hits audiences’ nerve of wishing themselves away from it (Knapp 120).

To further the recognition of ABBA songs, the choice of songs displays a preference for very successful songs. Obviously, people are more likely to be caught in the music and to participate in singing and dancing if they know the presented songs very well. It is no wonder, then, that big hits such as “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” are deliberately chosen as a hook to encourage audience participation. These songs were number one in Europe and even chart-toppers in the USA while having also evolved as party classics and karaoke favorites (R. Scott 75). It is only a short time into the film when “Dancing Queen” is sung. Donna has just learned that Sophie’s three possible fathers have arrived on the island but is unaware of her daughter being responsible for their sudden appearance. Distressed from this encounter and afraid of Sophie’s reaction, she hides in her bedroom accompanied by her friends Tanya and Rosie. She is asked by Tanya what had happened to the feisty Donna of the past, to which Donna answers: “I have grown up!” Tanya’s shriek of “Then grow back down again!” sets the motto for audiences’ aimed at participation. It is them starting to sing in order to cheer up Donna who is caught by the contagious sound and eventually joins in. It can be argued that in this scene, Donna mirrors any individual member of the audience who is also meant to be encouraged to participate. Upon hearing the first notes, one detects her recognition but also her reluctance. Yet with the first chorus, she finally jumps up and becomes fully immersed in the song. Gone are her worries as she races out of her house, across the island and onto the pier. Yet, she is not dancing alone. On her way down the hill, she is gradually joined by local women. They eagerly abandon their work, leaving it to their men, to join the singing. It is important to note that these women exemplify the refuge from everyday life inherent in nostalgia and can thus be seen as encouraging the audience to do the same. The growing number of Greek women forming a considerably large group at the pier is mirroring the aimed at growing audience participation and underlines the community aspect of singing and dancing. A recollection of many parties enriched by ABBA music is not farfetched upon watching the women dance care freely. Hence the audience as both individuals and group connected by music is addressed.


1 Not only did the movie soundtrack achieve “#1 status overall on the iTunes Music Store” ( ABBA’s greatest hits compilation, 'Gold', has also returned to number 5 of the UK top ten albums charts “for the first time in four years” (

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Nostalgia and Innovation in the songs of "Mamma Mia!"
University of Göttingen  (Philosophische Fakultät)
The American Musical
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
mamma mia, abba, film musical, film studies, jukebox musical, musical, film, nostalgia
Quote paper
Master of Arts Amelie Meyer (Author), 2012, Nostalgia and Innovation in the songs of "Mamma Mia!", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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