Zoë Kaplan

ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ never fails to get people moving, whether it’s at a college party or a Fourth of July celebration.  But the hit song strikes a different chord when played during ‘Mamma Mia!’ and its sequel ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.’  As I sat in the movie theater to see the latter’s premiere, I, like the many other 20-somethings there, felt the urge to dance in my seat.  Although I left the theater bopping along to the tunes now stuck in my head, I was also confused.  I could remember all the words to ‘Dancing Queen,’ but couldn’t figure out why the song was included in the movie—and why it had been relevant to the plot at all.

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Watch Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again here!

This confusion is a common reaction to jukebox musicals: musical films or stage productions with soundtracks made up entirely of music from popular artists.  Originally, jukebox musicals told the story of the artist or group their songs were from, such as the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’ a comedy that followed the everyday lives of the band’s members.  Since its creation, the term ‘jukebox musical’ has expanded to encompass any musical adaption using hit songs, with a soundtrack of a single album of a collection of an artists’ recordings (whether that soundtrack is a collection of recordings or from a single album.)

While these soundtracks may be popular, jukebox musicals tend to be hit or miss.  Some have had great success like ‘Jersey Boys’ (Four Seasons) and ‘All Shook Up’ (Elvis Presley), but others have been financial flops, like ‘Good Vibrations’ (Beach Boys), and ‘Lennon’ (John Lennon), which cost the production team $7 million for a lowly 49 performances.

A jukebox musical’s success isn’t easy to predict.  Although the show needs to have popular hits to attract an audience, a great soundtrack doesn’t always equal a great production.   There’s much more to a stage or screen production than just the music; while the songs can provide some sort of narrative arc, a show’s libretto (the text of the work) provides the story’s structure, including the basic plot, dialogue, and characters.

There’s also the predicament of how to fit songs into the show.  If a jukebox musical aims to encompass the works of a popular artist, there are tough choices to make when deciding which hits make the cut.  The most famous songs will attract an audience, but they may be awkward and unnatural when trying to advance the musical’s plot.  Even when a song does seem to fit, it’s hard to guarantee that it will be the perfect piece of the puzzle.  The chorus’ lyrics may make sense for one character’s motivation, but the verses’ words may misconstrue the intentions of the overall plot.

Let’s look at ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.’  Spoiler alert: Cher, playing Ruby Sheridan, the protagonist Sophie’s grandmother, returns to Greece to celebrate the opening of her granddaughter’s new hotel.  Upon her arrival, she sees a man she claims is her long-lost lover and is moved to burst into song, serenading him with the ABBA hit ‘Fernando.’  The song’s repetitive chorus’ includes, ‘There was something in the air that night / The stars were bright, Fernando.’  From these words, we understand that Ruby’s describing a passionate fling.  Yet as the song continues, the lyrics don’t seem to match the scene.  Soon after, Cher sings, ‘How proud you were to fight for freedom in this land.’  We’re given no explanation as to why this line is included.  Instead, we’re distracted by a beautifully lit scene complete with fireworks and vocals from a literal show-stopping celebrity.

Besides the chorus, the rest of the song is littered with mentions of battle and liberty.  ABBA’s original song ‘Fernando’ wasn’t meant to illustrate a long-lost love affair; rather, the song is about two people during the Mexican Revolution.

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Although the show needs to have popular hits to attract an audience, a great soundtrack doesn’t always equal a great production.

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It’s the sacrifice we make when we focus on the songs first rather than the plot.  Yet, like movies that turn into musicals, these shows bring in audiences Broadway has never seen before.  People who may have never considered seeing a Broadway show are more likely to buy tickets to a production if they’re fans of the artist or group that’s featured.  The diversity of audience members increases when jukebox musicals include popular songs of alternative genres—take the rock musical ‘American Idiot,’ featuring Green Day or ‘Head Over Heels,’ a new musical showcasing The Go-Go’s new wave sound.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to jukebox musicals.  They have the ability to breathe new life into a compilation of songs, giving them a story you’ve never imagined before.  However, that same set of songs can also be organized in a chaotic way, leaving the audience frustrated with the plot’s confusion.  I don’t plan on barring ‘Super Trooper’ from ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ from my future playlists anytime soon, but I won’t stop wondering how it made any sense for the all-star cast to sing the lively new rendition.

 

Zoë is a rising junior at Wesleyan University majoring in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. To read more of her writing, please visit www.writersblock.space or The Wesleyan Argus.

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