07/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mamma Mia! : A Cheat Sheet for Those Who Don't Quite Love ABBA

I was too good for ABBA.

I thought they were a manufactured group that some cynical producer invented to counter the dirty fun of late '70s disco.

When they called it quits, I believed they would package their Greatest Hits and vanish into Classic Radio, a hell I never visit.

Later, when their music was the engine for a hit musical, I thought that was the final throes for the band's cult.

But in nine years, 30 million people have seen Mamma Mia! on stage. The production has grossed $2 billion. It's still running on Broadway and on stages around the world.

And now cometh the movie, and the prospect of millions humming those catchy tunes.

Dislike is no longer an excuse for ignorance of this group and this phenomenon. I want to have something to say when others bang on about the film, so I did some remedial reading. Let what I learned serve as a primer.

Why the name?
ABBA comes from the initials of the first names of the members of the group: Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lyngstad.

Why was ABBA so popular?
Innocence. Catchy pop hooks. And lyrics like these:
You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen

Why did ABBA spawn a musical?
Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson wanted to write longer, more thematic music. In 1981, they met Tim Rice. Their collaboration resulted in Chess, which opened in 1986. Its success made them willing to consider another, closer to home.

Mamma Mia! -- who's ultimately responsible?
Judy Craymer, who went on to co-produce the film as well.

What was Ms. Craymer's big idea?
"My co-producer, Richard East, and I commissioned Catherine Johnson to write the story. My brief to her was that the lyrics could not change, the story should be a contemporary, ironic, romantic comedy and that if she listened carefully to ABBA's songs, she would notice how they fell into two different generations -- the slightly younger, playful songs like 'Honey, Honey' and 'Dancing Queen', and the more mature, emotional songs such as 'The Winner Takes It All' and 'Knowing Me, Knowing You'. The idea of a cross-generational love-story was devised."

Why was it set in Greece?
It had to be an island. Catherine Johnson had never been there. She used travel brochures for inspiration.

Why isn't "Fernando" featured?
Because that song is about two old soldiers discussing the Mexican Revolution.

What was it like to do a musical produced by a woman, written by a woman and directed by a woman?
Judy Craymer: "We were all happy to jump in and make the tea."

Was the production charmed?
The opening night in London was the 25th anniversary of ABBA winning the Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo".

Movie trivia: There's never been a major movie musical made by three women.
Well, why not? Phyllida Lloyd may never have directed a movie, but she directed the musical. Catherine Johnson had written the show. And Judy Craymer was unafraid to stare down all of Hollywood.

Can Meryl Steep really be 59?
Yes. And that violates the sacred rule of American movies: AARP-age men with younger women. Streep is older than her leading men, Pierce Brosnan (55), Stellan Skarsgard (57) and Colin Firth (47).

What other Hollywood taboos are violated in this movie?
How about the plot: the wedding of a daughter who wants her father to walk her down the aisle. But she doesn't know who her father is. Neither, it seems, does her mother -- from an old diary, the young woman learns he could be any of three lovers. So she invites them all.

Unmarried sex with multiple partners -- and that's a PG-13 rating?
That's not all. One of the possible dads turns out to be gay.

Yes, but is it any good?
Roger Friedman doesn't think so. First sentence: "It's hard to imagine a movie as poorly made as Mamma Mia! coming off the Hollywood assembly line with Meryl Streep as its star."

What's the one fact about ABBA and the movie to keep firmly in mind?
Mamma Mia
Mamma mia, here I go again
My my, how can I resist you?

[Cross-posted from]