So I ask you: How did Mamma Mia, with film legend Meryl Streep trilling ABBA songs on screen, become a hit? And how did the director Phyllida Lloyd, who mounted the smash stage production that’s still running on Broadway and all stops on the globe, allow Streep to sing her big number, “The Winner Takes It All,” with her hair blowing in her face and mouth? Wait, I’m getting off track. How has Mamma Mia! managed to take in over $100 million at the movie box office? Is it the success of the stage show? Is it seeing Streep pull out all the stops? Is it female audiences starved for something about them that isn’t Sex and the City? I can buy all those reasons. But please don’t tell me it’s the ABBA songs, sung bright (Streep, Christine Baranski), bad (Dominic Cooper) and bloody awful (PIerce Brosnan). On screen, at least, you have Greece and famous faces to distract you. But on CD the songs, overdubbed and overorchestrated, can drive you nuts. They sound like commercial jingles played on a continuous loop until you want to scream or leap off a tall building screaming, “MAKE IT STOP!” And yet the Mamma Mia soundtrack is currently the best selling CD in America. No shit. I want to know why. Watching Mamma Mia made me think of the state of the Broadway musical, the kind with original songs and not a jukebox compendium of ABBA, Billy Joel, Elvis or the Four Seasons. Is the original musical dead? The answer is NO, and I have three terrific examples, all available on CD:
In the Heights, which won this year’s Tony award as Best Musical, isn’t much of a show. Cast members come down stage and tell their stories, some intriguing, some not so much. But the songs (the score also won a Tony) by the show’s gifted star Lin-Manuel Miranda give Broadway a refreshing blast of hip-hop, salsa and a feeling for the barrio. Miranda plays the owner of a bodega in New York’s Washington Heights, a Spanish neighborhood fighting yuppification. It’s Broadway to a Latin beat and listening to it is a pleasure.
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Passing Strange, which should have won the Tony award, is a rock concert disguised as a Broadway musical. I’m talking drums, synths, and electric guitars. Its star, the single-named Stew (real name Mark Stewart), wrote the show’s book (which deservedly won a Tony), did the lyrics and composed the score with Heidi Rodewald. Stew, 47, also plays lead guitar and serves as the narrator, which is only fitting since it’s basically his story being told. He’s a young black man (the amazing Daniel Breaker plays Stew as a teen) breaking free of a comfy life in L.A. with his devoted mother (Eisa Davis find his muse and his music in the hash bars of Amsterdam and the performance-art dens of Berlin. Stew, who formed a band called The Negro Problem in the early 1990s, pokes fun at himself as a selfish kid trying to blacken up in Europe. But his music is the show’s glory, and that rasp in his voice is addictive, especially in the powerful “Mom’s Song.” Passing Strange has already closed on Broadway, the victim of being unique. The good news is that Spike Lee has filmed it for HBO and that the cast album, recorded live, is available. It’ll floor you.
[title of show], the newest musical on Broadway, is all about writing a musical. And it’s the biggest little show on Broadway. Big in laughs, big in heart, big in talent, and big in songs that get inside your head and take you for a smart, sassy ride. What’s small is the set — just a few chairs, occupied by composer Jeff Bowen, librettist Hunter Bell, two friends (Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) who help them sing their vision, and keyboardist Larry Pressgrove who accompanies their flights of fancy. You’ve probably never heard of any of them. But see them, hear them, let them inside, and they’ll be yours for life. The rap on [Title of show] — it’s the first line you fill out on an application to enter a musical-writing contest — is that it’s an insider’s piece, filled with references that zigzag like a monkey steering a speedboat from Shakespeare to Sondheim to Seadaris. The truth about [title of show] is that it’s about the creative drive that lives in all of us until we let the vampires of despair suck it out of our jugulars. The spectacular song, “Die, Vampire, Die,” spearheaded by the fierce and funny Blackwell, spells it out in universal terms. As Blickenstaff sings powerfully and touchingly about how to find “a way back to then, ” there won’t be a non-vampire who can’t relate . Make no mistake, Bowen and Bell take us on a comic odyssey with devilish glee. Zestily directed by Michael Berresse, [title of show], is a “hot box of crazy.” But what makes it stick is the generous humanity of the gifted performers on that stage and the songs they bring to vibrant life. Get the cast album pronto, listen to them sing, “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing/than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing,” and you’re hooked. [title of show] is a small miracle, and simply irresistible.