Drawing a Line in the Cheese, p. 2

But must one rally to all forms of cheese, everywhere? The key to my discomfort with Mamma Mia! was the cost of the ticket, $35, which thankfully my date paid for me (I covered dinner). The price, which bought a seat high up above the tree-line in a balcony overlooking the nose-bleed section, made me compare the show with other performances I had seen for about the same amount of money. A few weeks earlier I paid $45 to see Youssou N'Dour. I paid roughly $35 several years ago in Paris to see Cheb Mami. I paid exactly $35 to see The Who in Philadelphia when I was in high school. At each of those shows, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my money had bought me something very special. N'Dour is the best thing to come out of Africa since peanut butter. He is a treasure for all humanity. He made me shake my ass. The Cheb Mami concert was not just terrific music but an eye-opening cultural experience. I danced with thousands of North Africans who waved Algerian flags and reveled in a rare celebration of Arab-Berber unity. Money well spent. And The Who at the Vet -- who dares question the value of hearing Baba O'Reilly that loud? I was deaf for days but didn't mind. So what if the last thing I ever heard was Roger Daltry shrieking?

As for Mamma Mia, I did have a good time, and I really dug my date. But what was everyone applauding for? What accomplishment were we acclaiming? The music itself is terrific. But it was written twenty years ago, and the singers on stage, all heavily miked and demonstrating nothing more than the competency one should expect of professionals, might as well have been lip syncing. (In fact I think they sometimes were, and often I could hear sounds and voices in the background that could only have come from Abba recordings.) The rest, the writing, the costume design, the stage sets, etc., were all so thoughtlessly slapped together that they may well have been the work of a college-level theater class. It wasn't just that the production was low quality. It was that the self-conscious silliness of the production suggested that the people behind it were making fun of the audience. "You'll pay more than $35 for this!" the producers seemed to be saying, laughing at the cheering crowd.

Mamma Mia! seemed to act on the premise that once the audience agrees to be a party to cheese, it has no right to demand anything more than to be entertained. Taste must be turned off along with cell phones and beepers. But good cheese, like good art, requires talent, intelligence, inventiveness, and at the very least effort. That's the secret behind Madonna's success and the continued popularity of Abba. Their stuff is good. I bet that even a Britney Spears concert pulls together considerable talent from a small army of hard-working set designers, lighting experts, choreographers, musicians, and dancers. She earns her applause by giving her audience a good show. The Buffy musical was clever and even daring. The lyrics were smart, and the songs advanced the plot in interesting and surprising ways. Now think of the enormous talent on display in The Sound of Music or even the Charlie Brown Christmas special. In contrast, Mamma Mia! is just a cheap way to make a few bucks; it dances on the grave of musical theater.

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August 2002

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