Mamma Mia! 
Written by Catherine Johnson 
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Louise Pitre, Judy Kaye, Karen Mason, and Tina Maddigan
Winter Garden Theatre, New York City (open run)

The Women
Written by Clare Boothe Luce
Directed by Scott Elliott
Starring Kristen Johnson, Rue McClanahan, Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Tilly, and Jennifer Coolidge
American Airlines Theatre, New York City (through December 3)

Going over the fall schedule, my editor and I agreed that among the theater events Advocate readers would want to know about were the New York premiere of the London hit musical Mamma Mia! -- featuring the songs of ABBA -- and the Roundabout Theater Company's Broadway revival of Clare Boothe Luce's The Women. Neither of these shows has any gay content to speak of. (The Women has a director, Scott Elliott, and costume designer, Isaac Mizrahi, who are openly gay, but that's true of half the shows on Broadway anytime.) So how did we know these shows would be hot gay tickets?

The occasion raises anew the fascinating and not entirely comfortable question: Is there such a thing as gay taste? Susan Sontag wrote her most famous essay, "Notes on 'Camp,'" on the subject in 1964, but has nothing changed since then? Let's look at the two shows in question.

Mamma Mia! is an old-fashioned book musical written by Catherine Johnson and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, loosely based on the 1966 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell. Proudly independent Donna Sheridan (Louise Pitre), once a semi-hippie rock singer, has raised her daughter Sophie (Tina Maddigan) alone. Now Sophie's getting married, and in an attempt to meet her real father she's invited three of her mother's former boyfriends to the wedding on a Greek island. Among the foreseeable scenes of drama, comedy, and pathos, Johnson has found room for 22 ABBA songs, much the same way that recent musicals Crazy for You and My One and Only created new uses for old Gershwin tunes.

Although the lyrics are uniformly insipid and fit the story about as well as those from any 1930s Rodgers & Hart musical (which is just barely), for those of us who grew up with ABBA, there's something thrilling about hearing "S.O.S" and "Take a Chance on Me" blasting from a Broadway stage. Some of Anthony Van Laast's choreography is pretty campy, and one of the would-be dads turns out to be gay, but mostly this is a big schlocky fun-for-the-whole-family Broadway musical. So was Jekyll & Hyde, which had no particular gay buzz around it.

But Mamma Mia! has ABBA, about whom we feel a curious ownership. My guess is that it started because we felt personally validated when the Swedish super-group sang "You are a dancing queen." And as the Australia films Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding revealed, ABBA’s cheerful artificiality made it the secret heart-music for awkward, dreamy girls and boys who know just what to do with yards of colorful fabric. 

The 1939 film of The Women was made by a gay director (George Cukor), and the stars include several divas beloved by movie queens (Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer). But what makes it a certified gay camp classic -- even though the screwball-swift dialogue was written by Anita Loos and (an uncredited) F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce -- is that it portrays a group of gossipy New York socialites pining for unseen men and viciously dishing each other. 

The bristling misogyny of The Women is unsettling, whether it resides in the characters or in the author. Equally disturbing to me is the assumption that knock-down-drag-out bitch-fighting is automatically amusing to gay men. When we embrace The Women (or Ab Fab or whatever), are we laughing because it's enjoyably over-the-top or because we're validating the stereotype of fags as women-haters? Some might say, to borrow Flaubert’s famous remark about Madame Bovary, "The women, they’re us."

Scott Elliott's Broadway revival plays Luce's script relatively straight (although the writer character -- presumably Luce's alter-ego -- is played much dykier than usual). It primarily works to showcase a remarkable cast of 25, including many stars from TV, stage, and film. Some do better than others -- most notably Cynthia Nixon, the fire-breathing Kristen Johnston, and the hilarious Jennifer Coolidge. The curtain call, which parades them all in Mizrahi underthings, left a rancid taste in my mouth. But the audience (mostly straight) laps it up, along with the bitchiest exchanges -- warming to the zingers rather than the play's uneasy heartsickness.

Maybe the dirty little secret these shows reveal is that gay taste isn't so different from the mainstream's anymore. Neither Mamma Mia! nor The Women is a cartoonishly trashy campfest. Nor could either be viewed as a savvy feminist critique of what bell hooks calls "the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." A couple of decades of pop culture have smoothed the sting of camp into the more acceptable flavor of kitsch.

The Advocate, December 25, 2001