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Abba songs are a fitting soundtrack for Easter

28 March 2024

Far from being light and frivolous, Mamma Mia! contains much that is theologically resonant, argues Ian Bradley

IT WILL be 25 years next weekend since the Abba musical Mamma Mia! opened in the West End of London. In the ensuing quarter-century, its Easter-like message of resurrection, new birth, and hope coming out of adversity has been reinforced by two hugely popular films and, more recently, by the “ABBA Voyage” concert, featuring holograms of the four Swedish singers in their prime, in a purpose-built arena in the Olympic Park at Stratford (Diary, 26 January).

It has been the most successful of a whole string of jukebox musicals that are essentially compilations of hit songs, padded out with usually rather inane plots. In Mamma Mia!, the story of the deserted Donna Sheridan, her dream of building a hotel on a Greek island, and her relationship with her daughter and best friends, is more substantial and touching, having a feminist twist. For the theatre producer Kate Pakenham, it is “an almost Shakespearean story of lost souls washed up onto a magical island”, proving that musicals, while “apparently light and flippant and frivolous . . . actually have more depth than you might expect”.

Mamma Mia! has certainly had an undeniably uplifting, life-enhancing effect. Its pastoral and therapeutic properties were well illustrated when it opened on Broadway in 2001, within a month of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Already dubbed “the Lourdes of musicals” for its curative effect on audiences, who cast aside walking sticks, crutches, and inhibitions to dance along to its catchy tunes, it was hailed by a New York Times critic as “just what the city needed and the unlikeliest hit ever to win over cynical sentiment-shy New Yorkers”.

I know several people who watched the second film, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the evening before going into hospital for a major operation; and I suspect that I am not the only person to be moved to tears by the scene in which Donna, played by Meryl Streep, makes an apparent resurrection appearance, returning from death to sing “With all my heart, God bless you” during the baptism of her grandchild.

FOR Jews and Christians, the word “Abba” immediately brings to mind the Hebrew and Aramaic word for father, which appears in much traditional Jewish liturgy, and was used by Jesus to describe his relationship with God, as at the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer.

In fact, the group’s name was chosen on the basis of the first letters of its four members’ Christian names: Agnetha, Benny, Björn, and Anni-Frid. The band’s most prominent member, Björn Ulvaeus, has made no secret of his atheism and general dislike of religion. But this does not stop several of the songs in the musical from having considerable spiritual depth — a quality that, surely, at least partly explains its appeal across all ages.

For me, the most theologically charged song from Mamma Mia! is the simple and soulful ballad “I have a dream”. Its opening line is reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 speech, and of the prophecy made in the book of Joel, and repeated in Acts, that God will pour out his spirit so that the old will dream dreams and the young see visions.

The song contains the lines “I believe in angels, something good in everything I see,” and “When I know the time is right for me, I’ll cross the stream.” The many moving comments on YouTube, where the performance of the song has been viewed more than 30 million times, indicate that it has often accompanied people’s dying moments, and has brought considerable consolation to the bereaved and those suffering from depression.

SOME years ago, grieving parents in Essex wanted to put the line “I believe in angels, something good in everything I see” on the gravestone of their teenage daughter, who had died in particularly tragic circumstances.

The diocese of Chelmsford refused them permission, on the grounds that this was not suitable language for a churchyard. This decision showed both pastoral insensitivity and theological cloth-headedness. Besides speaking words of hope to the grieving parents, it surely proclaims two central tenets of the Christian faith: a belief in angels and a conviction that the world created by God is basically good, and that everyone and everything has something of the divine within them and is not beyond redemption.

I am not the only cleric to have a soft spot for Mamma Mia! I vividly recall our former parish minister, later Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, donning his ’80s flares and organising a congregational outing to the original film in our local cinema. The biggest Abba fan I know is a priest in the Church in Wales.

I suspect that what attracts us about their songs is the way in which they do not shy away from probing difficult topics, such as loneliness and relationship break-ups, while still being infectiously toe-tapping, feel-good numbers that lift the spirits and strengthen community bonding.

Mamma Mia! is a perfect and appropriate Easter treat, in fact. I am sure that it will be popping up on more than one television channel over the holiday period.

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews, a minister of the Church of Scotland, and the author of
You’ve Got to Have a Dream: The message of the musical (SCM Press, 2004); 978-0-33402-949-6.

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