Why Mamma Mia’s gay appeal runs deeper than shirtless guys and sequins
I was raised on ABBA’s music. My parents owned lots of CDs, but after my brother destroyed them by lining them up and stepping on them, we mostly listened to three of the survivors on repeat. One of them was ABBA Gold. My expectations walking into the Novello Theatre were therefore very high.
I have seen both the movies, although I didn’t see the first one until the first year of uni (he who is without sin cast the first stone), and fell in love with Meryl Streep and Lily James. But watching it on stage, live, made me realize why Mamma Mia has such a wide and dedicated gay fanbase. And yes – it’s not just because of the (many, many) topless guys or the glittery outfits (I’m still scarred by the former and in love with the latter).
The first thing I realized is that even though Mamma Mia’s basic plot is about a wedding, the story is about so much more. In fact, Sophie and Sky’s relationship didn’t feel like the most important plotline in the musical – the real heroes are of course Donna and the three fathers. Romance does not feel like it’s at the heart of the story, which is a breath of fresh air for LGBT audiences – not because romance is not important, but because it gets tiring seeing love stories that feel unrelatable.
In fact, Mamma Mia is about the friendships, the bromances. Many of the musical’s best moments are the scenes between Donna and the Dynamos, or the interactions between Sam, Harry and Bill. The opening scene itself shows Sophie laughing with her two best friends. But the friendships in Mamma Mia run deeper – they are really a depiction of found family.
That is what truly stood out for me – the non-romantic relationships between the characters felt so genuine and mirrored my own experiences. I think anyone can relate to gossiping with your friends (although for our mums’ sake, hopefully not about our parents’ sexual antics), or to dragging your friend away from their partner for a wild night of drinking. In reference to the latter, Lay Your Love on Me was the true highlight of the show – a song whose lyrics are fairly angsty became the most hilarious moment of the musical, with Sky’s friends showing up in amazing low-cut wetsuits (apparently they’re a thing) and flippers to take him away to his stag do.
All the characters come from different walks of life – socialite Tanya, down-to-earth Rosie, awkward Harry, adventurous Bill, brooding Sam and indescribable Donna. Yet they all get along, and go to great lengths to help each other. The simple act of the three fathers showing up on a remote island in Greece for the wedding of their one-night stand’s daughter’s wedding (as they don’t know why they’ve been invited), shows that whatever relationship they had with Donna continues to affect them – and for two of the fathers, not in a romantic way. The musical does an amazing job at showing the real care all the characters have for each other.
This, ultimately, is what feels the most relevant to LGBT audiences. For many, family can be a difficult subject – our identities are not always accepted, or they are, but conditionally. You can be gay… but you can’t show it. Found families become of the utmost importance, and we forge deep bonds with the people in our lives that we may not be related to, but who know so much about us and on whom we can rely on for anything. Often, the people we find are very different from each other and from us – sometimes all we have in common is being queer. Our backgrounds don’t matter, even common interests become less important – and this is truly present in Mamma Mia. The three fathers especially develop a heart-warming bromance, despite being polar opposites from one another.
Mamma Mia even has its token gay character, Harry – although he comes out at the very end, queer audiences will have honed in on his use of the word ‘partner’, an obvious tell. Yet the musical doesn’t go further than that, and stays discreet on the matter – probably in an attempt to stay appealing to wider audiences. It feels like Mamma Mia is shying away from fully committing to its gay subtext – a wider phenomenon we see in pop culture, where queerness is hinted at but never revealed.
While this is disappointing, Mamma Mia remains a delightful musical, and its worldwide success is definitely warranted. There are few musicals where the audience dances and sings in their seat by the end, and fewer where even the usher, who’s presumably seen the show countless times, joins in on the dancing.