Mamma Mia! – Thank You for the Music(al)

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, News of the dayLeave a Comment

carolee-carmello-mamma-mia

When you’re a champion, capsule as I am, shop of original British musicals, search you’ve sadly all too often got a lot of cheerleading to do. Just look at this weekend’s entries vying for the Olivier for Best Musical: all but one of them are imports from New York, on or off Broadway – Beautiful, Memphis and Here Lies Love, against the sole British entry Sunny Afternoon. And two of those four musicals – Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon – don’t have original songs, either, but are recycled pop jukeboxes (albeit superior ones).

madeindagenham-landscapeSomehow, and utterly unaccountably, Made in Dagenham failed to be nominated in the Best Musical category, and has limped away with just two nominations – for star Gemma Arterton and for Bunny Christie’s set design. The show is closing this weekend, to make way for another industrial workplace musical Kinky Boots, swapping the car factory of Dagenham for a shoe-making factory in Northampton, which arrives already festooned with Tony Awards.

Yet I’d honestly say that Made in Dagenham is the superior musical to Kinky Boots. When I reviewed the former for The Stage, I wrote, “The final number of the show is called ‘Stand Up'; this is a new British musical worth standing and cheering for, at last.”

And that’s what I – and a full Wednesday evening performance, open to the top of the house – duly did again last night at the Adelphi Theatre. I’ve now seen the show three times, and it just gets better. No, it’s not perfect – the show still, as I said the first time round, “lacks a killer tune of the take-home variety”; but it has tons of heart and a lot of craft.

It may owe a little too much to Billy Elliot, without the seamless staging, scenic and choreographic genius that illuminated that show so fantastically from Stephen Daldry, Ian MacNeil and Peter Darling respectively, but no one’s stinted here, either, in any of those departments, and Bunny Christie’s sets are a particular triumph of inventiveness, with their clever Airfix style panels and onstage production line.

It’s also performed with real panache and integrity by a cast that’s led by performers who feel shorn of musical theatre artifice; when’s the last time you saw a musical theatre leading man with a bit of a paunch, or a leading lady who exudes grit as well as glamour? Adrian der Gregorian and Gemma Arterton make both their characters utterly real; and they’re fantastically supported by a cast that also includes the wonderful Sophie Stanton, Sophie-Louise Dann, Isla Blair, Mark Hadfield and Naomi Frederick.

spend-spend-spendBy coincidence, there’s another British musical, also set in the 60s and based on a real-life events, at the Union at the moment: Spend Spend Spend, which originally opened at the Piccadilly in 1999, that also pulses with authentic life, but likewise failed on its original outing. It’s done, of course, on a rather different scale to the original, but it has a lot of integrity and feeling.

Both these shows deserve support. I’m sad that Made in Dagenham has failed to rally the town, though happy to see it going with a bang; perhaps one day it will have a Union revival to prove how good it really is.

When you’re a champion, price as I am, sales of original British musicals, you’ve sadly all too often got a lot of cheerleading to do. Just look at this weekend’s entries vying for the Olivier for Best Musical: all but one of them are imports from New York, on or off Broadway – Beautiful, Memphis and Here Lies Love, against the sole British entry Sunny Afternoon. And two of those four musicals – Beautiful and Sunny Afternoon – don’t have original songs, either, but are recycled pop jukeboxes (albeit superior ones).

madeindagenham-landscapeSomehow, and utterly unaccountably, Made in Dagenham failed to be nominated in the Best Musical category, and has limped away with just two nominations – for star Gemma Arterton and for Bunny Christie’s set design. The show is closing this weekend, to make way for another industrial workplace musical Kinky Boots, swapping the car factory of Dagenham for a shoe-making factory in Northampton, which arrives already festooned with Tony Awards.

Yet I’d honestly say that Made in Dagenham is the superior musical to Kinky Boots. When I reviewed the former for The Stage, I wrote, “The final number of the show is called ‘Stand Up'; this is a new British musical worth standing and cheering for, at last.”

And that’s what I – and a full Wednesday evening performance, open to the top of the house – duly did again last night at the Adelphi Theatre. I’ve now seen the show three times, and it just gets better. No, it’s not perfect – the show still, as I said the first time round, “lacks a killer tune of the take-home variety”; but it has tons of heart and a lot of craft.

It may owe a little too much to Billy Elliot, without the seamless staging, scenic and choreographic genius that illuminated that show so fantastically from Stephen Daldry, Ian MacNeil and Peter Darling respectively, but no one’s stinted here, either, in any of those departments, and Bunny Christie’s sets are a particular triumph of inventiveness, with their clever Airfix style panels and onstage production line.

It’s also performed with real panache and integrity by a cast that’s led by performers who feel shorn of musical theatre artifice; when’s the last time you saw a musical theatre leading man with a bit of a paunch, or a leading lady who exudes grit as well as glamour? Adrian der Gregorian and Gemma Arterton make both their characters utterly real; and they’re fantastically supported by a cast that also includes the wonderful Sophie Stanton, Sophie-Louise Dann, Isla Blair, Mark Hadfield and Naomi Frederick.

spend-spend-spendBy coincidence, there’s another British musical, also set in the 60s and based on a real-life events, at the Union at the moment: Spend Spend Spend, which originally opened at the Piccadilly in 1999, that also pulses with authentic life, but likewise failed on its original outing. It’s done, of course, on a rather different scale to the original, but it has a lot of integrity and feeling.

Both these shows deserve support. I’m sad that Made in Dagenham has failed to rally the town, though happy to see it going with a bang; perhaps one day it will have a Union revival to prove how good it really is.

Of the top 13 longest-running shows in Broadway history, medications six are still running now: The Phantom of the Opera and Chicago at the top of the list, view with The Lion King, Mamma Mia!, Wicked and Jersey Boys further down the list, and seemingly bedded in forever.

Certainly The Lion King and Wicked are still regularly amongst the top grossing shows on Broadway every week — last week, across an unusual 9-performance week for some shows as a result of the Easter/Passover weekend, The Lion King took a whopping $2,633,531 to top the list, with Wicked just behind it with $2,358,372, also across nine performances.

mamma-mia-trioBut last night it was announced that Mamma Mia!, currently the 8th longest running musical in Broadway history, is to close on Broadway on September 5 after a 14 year run. When it closes it will have played 5,765 performances to over 7m people, and grossed over $600m during that time. (According to deadline.com, the show’s worldwide gross from 49 productions on every continent but Antarctica exceeds $2 billion.)

It’s a show that inspired a whole sub-genre of musicals that plundered back pop catalogues to create new book musicals — but none have been as successful as Mamma Mia!, or done with such good grace and humour or set to such an insistently memorable soundtrack. A few weeks before it opened in the West End, I ran into a key member of the original creative team — we were both wearing just towels at the time in a sauna in Luton — who warned me off seeing it: “You’ll hate it!”

But he was wrong (and he’s also very rich now, so presumably is happy that he was). When it transferred to New York, after runs in Toronto and San Francisco, I was there, too — just three weeks after 9/11. I remember going to the invited dress rehearsal, and feeling the collective release of an audience, traumatised by the recent horrific events in their own city,  surrendering to the sunny, funny charms of this show.

mamma-mia-dee-hotyIn the years since, I’ve regularly re-visited the show in New York — partly to catch different Donna’s, including the sublime Dee Hoty (pictured left, now back on Broadway in Gigi that just opened this week) and Carolee Carmello, pictured centre above, possibly the best Donna I ever saw — and I was there, too, for the show’s spectacular 10th anniversary performance, when they blocked Broadway front of the theatre after the show to deliver a street encore!

I’ll be sad to see it leave Broadway — but on the other hand, I’m pleased that another Broadway house is being freed up for newer product.