Does ABBA Exist in the Mamma Mia! Universe?
In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Harry Bright (portrayed by Hugh Skinner) furrows his eyebrows as he looks past young Donna (Lily James), taking in the Parisian café around him. The grand piano in the corner only strengthens the determination in his eyes. The waiters dressed as Napoleon put down their trays and abandon their tables, taking their places for the upcoming dance number. “When you’re defeated by love, you’re utterly defeated,” Harry declares with a slight gasp. The location he has chosen for lunch and the cliches he has been spouting perfectly set up ABBA’s “Waterloo.” Harry’s gasp, a moment of realization, can only mean one thing: ABBA exists in the Mamma Mia! Universe.
It is well known that Mamma Mia! and its successor, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are cinematic masterpieces, but movie musicals are nothing new. Rising in popularity, movies like La La Land, The Greatest Showman, and Cats, have exposed viewers to the concept of characters casually breaking out into song. These characters have no agency in their song and dance numbers; they are simply exploiting emotional moments by turning them into musicals. The characters themselves have no knowledge that a beautiful ballad or exciting dance number is occurring.
So, what makes the MMU (Mamma Mia! Universe) different?
Besides the fact that it is worshiped by fans, many songs within the MMU are performed by the characters themselves, NOT the actors. This distinction is the first sign that ABBA does exist in the MMU. “Our Last Summer” begins with Harry (Colin Firth) playing Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) a song on a guitar he once gifted Donna. “Super Trouper” is performed by Donna and the Dynamos, the most famous ABBA cover band throughout all of the MMU. While “Lay All Your Love on Me” and “Gimmie! Gimmie! Gimmie!” are not performed by specific characters, they play during Sophie’s bachelorette party, so if a DJ has the ability to play ABBA, the band must exist. At 25:30 minutes into Mamma Mia! Donna is even shown humming “Fernando” to herself as she works, meaning there must be a CD of ABBA’s Greatest Hits somewhere in that hotel.
These characters have agency. They are choosing to sing ABBA. The music of ABBA is more than just a performance. It is the life and soul of not just the movie, not just the characters, but the world of Mamma Mia!
This may seem weird. In what world do people break into song and dance so casually? Don’t movie musicals need an element of suspended disbelief? People don’t just start singing, right?
These questions fail to consider how powerful ABBA’s discography is. Isn’t it entirely plausible that ABBA would inspire passionate flash mobs full of dancing, jiving, and air guitars? Who can listen to “Dancing Queen,” a song constantly inspiring newly turned seventeen-year-old girls on Instagram feeds all over the world, and not want to dance? When you hear “Take A Chance on Me,” don’t you want to take a chance on a plane ticket to a small Greek island and have sex with three strangers in the span of a few days? People in real life constantly break into song. Have you ever sat next to a table of musical theater majors in the dining hall? Hang around Dillingham long enough and you’ll understand.
Besides, how else can you explain Pierce Brosnan’s attempt at singing “When All is Said and Done?” If Mamma Mia! was meant to be a normal movie musical, why wouldn’t casting hire a singer? Brosnan’s character, Sam, is just an average guy singing an ABBA cover to woo the love of his life. Now, that’s relatable.
It is worth noting that there are a few songs in Mamma Mia! that function for the purposes of a normal movie musical. During the song “Honey Honey” Sophie and her friends read through past hookups in Donna’s old diary, trying to figure out who Sophie’s dad is. Here the song moves the plot forward, raising an interesting question: Assuming “Honey Honey” is a typical movie musical moment, are only some ABBA songs, the ones performed by characters, canon in the MMU? Does MMU ABBA have a different discography than our ABBA? What role does their music play? Could it be something more integral to the inner workings of their world? Their society? Their religion?
What complicates this otherwise very clear issue is the fact that two of the four band members, Andersson and Ulvaeus, make cameos in the films. Andersson plays piano during “Dancing Queen.” Ulvaeus appears during the ending credits of the first film, dressed as Zeus dancing to “Waterloo.” Dressing up as Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus and the entire Greek Pantheon seems especially symbolic. Mamma Mia! even ends atop a large cliff, reminiscent of Mount Olympus. The narrow stone steps leading up to the church Sophie intends to get married in, overlook a beautiful coast of Kalokairi, a fictional Greek island created for the MMU. The MMU has a noticeable relation to Greek mythology. After all, aren’t we, viewers, audience members, and fans of the MMU worshipers of Donna and the Dynamos? Aren’t Donna and the Dynamos worshipers of ABBA?
Maybe it isn’t so symbolic – maybe it’s literal. Donna, Sophie, and her three dads practice a religion based around Ulvaeus and Andersson. The entire MMU does. ABBA is the canon God of the MMU; the father, son, and the holy spirit. Or rather, the lead singer, the guitarist, the keyboards and the synthesizers.
The songs previously noted as functioning like normal movie musical numbers are, in fact, hymns. Songs like “Honey Honey” call on ABBA for guidance. Perhaps the lyrics would be better interpreted as “Honey Honey, how He thrills me.” Sung before her daughter’s wedding day, “Slipping Through My Fingers” is Donna’s way of calling on the Gods to bless Sophie’s marriage. In “When All is Said and Done” Sam is praying that Donna will end up with him; and in the end, his prayer was answered. By the power of ABBA and the grace of God, they get married. In the MMU, the God ABBA descends into the world whenever the “night is young” and “the music’s high.” Jiving is a kind of prayer, and ABBA’s discography a book of psalms.
Sara Mallory is a second-year nonfiction writing major who has been issued a cease and desist by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org