ABBA principals Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus turned to stage musicals after their band's demise and composed two, one of which, Chess, ran in the West End and on Broadway. For their third stage effort, they returned to their ABBA catalog and put together Mamma Mia!, a show that employs their old songs (with occasional lyric revisions) in the service of a libretto by Catherine Johnson about a girl who tries to discover her father's identity in time to have him give her away at her wedding. It's a hackneyed plot worthy of a second-rate Hollywood comedy film, of course, but the score is guaranteed to resonate with audiences, which may explain why the show was a success upon its London opening on April 6, 1999. With a pre-Broadway American tour starting in San Francisco in November 2000, Decca Records released the original London cast album (without identifying it as such on the cover) in the U.S. in October 2000.
Onstage, of course, there is the production, complete with sets, actors, and scenes, to contend with, but a show built on familiar musical material runs into an unusual problem on record, namely, that it is forced to compete with the original recordings. So, how does Mamma Mia! compare to an ABBA greatest-hits album? Well, the recordings are less fully produced than the originals, and in that sense less impressive. But the originals were sung by Scandinavians who sometimes sounded like they had learned the lyrics phonetically, the vocals often featuring odd phrasing and word emphasis. Here, the songs are being sung by native English speakers, and that is a distinct improvement. The recording features snippets of dialogue here and there, though the plot line is not clearly delineated, which will frustrate those who haven't seen the show. And anyone planning to sing along had better consult the lyric sheet beforehand, because there are minor differences here and there. (Though, thankfully, the creative team couldn't find a way to work "Waterloo" or "Fernando" into the story!) You are probably still better off with an ABBA hits CD, but at least Mamma Mia! is better than the A*Teens.