Saturday, August 16, 2008

Digging the Dancing Queen

From theAge.com.au

The Hollywood star takes a shine to ABBA, and reveals that singing launched her acting career, writes Philippa Hawker.

'Scratch an actor," says Meryl Streep, "and you'll find a singer. I can't think of anybody I know - except, maybe Al Pacino - who couldn't do a musical. And that wouldn't stop him, either. He'd love to do one."

Right now, the whole world knows that Streep is in full voice: that in the film version of the stage hit Mamma Mia! she does aerial splits, she wears platform shoes, she leads a caravan of women in an exuberant al fresco version of Dancing Queen and she sings her heart out to The Winner Takes It All. Her commitment to the project continues: she has been on the road accompanying the movie to all corners of the globe. Last week, she was in Stockholm, alongside Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Frida, for the Swedish premiere: this week she has come to Australia for its release.

The musical, an unprecedented hit since its debut in 2001, is built around ABBA's songbook, and a slender plot that is the tale of a mother, a daughter and three potential fathers. Streep saw the show in New York in October 2001, with her then 10-year-old daughter and some of her friends. She sent a note to the producers to tell them them how much they had all loved its exuberance, at a time when New Yorkers were in a state of shock at the events of September 11.

She had no idea, years later, she says, that there was to be a film version. But when her agent rang her one day and said, "They're making a movie out of this musical, Mamma Mia!" she didn't hesitate. "I just jumped. I said, 'Oh my god, I want to do it'.

'It wasn't that I wanted to do a musical. I don't think ahead like that. I really am a girl who waits to be asked to dance. I'm not proactive in my career or my life. And I can't generate projects like that, because it takes so much time."

It isn't, perhaps, what people would immediately think of as a Streep role. She is nothing if not versatile, she has a remarkable range and a still-under-appreciated talent for comedy. And you could say that she is under-appreciated at Academy Award time, too. Although she has had more Oscar nominations - 14 - than any other actor, she has only won twice. And the last time was in 1982, for Sophie's Choice.

But emoting is often what she is most associated with, in the popular imagination. The latest version of the musical Fame has a song called Think of Meryl Streep, about an aspiring actress urging herself to use disappointments as creative inspiration: "Though your heart is breaking, Never start to weep, Someday you can use it, Think of Meryl Streep."

But to Streep, music has been a constant pleasure and creative element. And the appreciative note she sent, as far as she is concerned, wasn't what brought her into consideration for the role. The show's producer, Judy Craymer, saw her on stage, two years ago, in a Central Park production of Brecht's Mother Courage. "I had five songs in it," Streep says, "and I guess Judy saw something in that performance that made her make that association. From Mother Courage to Mamma Mia!"

The musical is set on a Greek island, where Streep's character, Donna, has run a small hotel and raised her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). She has never revealed the identity of the father. Sophie, who is about to get married, discovers when she reads her mother's old diaries that Donna is not sure who it was: it could have been any one of three men with whom she had flings at the time. Secretly, Sophie invites all three men to the island for the wedding, convinced that she will know which one is her father. And so, in an idyllic landscape, and with spirited renditions of Chiquitita, Honey, Honey and Super Trouper, to name but a few - the story unfolds. Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard play the three prospective fathers; Christine Baranski and Julie Walters are Donna's old friends and ex-members of a girl-group called Donna and the Dynamos.

Talking about the film, Streep is funny, thoughtful and direct, with a conversational style that's a mixture of the reflective and the dramatic. It's almost impossible to convey the combination, the extravagance of her emphasis and the dryness of her delivery.

She speaks about the ABBA songs with affection and wonder. They are, she thinks, almost impossibly infectious and energising. On the shoot, she says, "it was so much fun, but at the end of the day we were all just knackered, flat-out dead. And yet we'd come in the next morning, and they'd pump the music up, and you couldn't not get into it, there was such Pavlovian response, my body was just bouncing".

There is, she is convinced, an unexpected influence on the sound that she has only just become aware of. "In Stockholm, Benny and Bjorn threw a big party after the opening at Benny's hotel. He has a band of musicians that records all the time. I think they're number six on the charts right now. But they're Swedish traditional music. It's an oompah band, a great big tuba, and fiddlers, and it's real country-traditional roots music, and it's absolutely irresistible. People ask what it is about ABBA's music that's so optimistic and enlivening, and you could just see it in this folk music. They play it loud and exuberant, and they lubricate it with a lot of aquavit."

But there is also a melancholy aspect to her experience of the songs, she adds. She went to Sweden to record one particular number, The Winner Takes It All, in Stockholm, she says, "where we were in the very same tiny old studio where ABBA recorded 30 years ago, where Agnetha sang that song. Same microphone. Same band, same shag carpet on the wall. Nothing had changed, it was a museum to the '70s.

"The band included the original drummer, who has since died. Benny sat down at the piano and said 'we're just going to do it for practice, we haven't done this for years, we're going to feel our way through it'. But that take was the one that was used. Benny told me the drummer had tears running down his cheeks. It was a big deal for all of them, I think, to go back to the music."

Years ago, Streep made no bones about her interest in starring in the movie verson of Evita, but the role went to Madonna. Before Mamma Mia! she sang in several films. In the late Robert Altman's last film, the backstage musical A Prairie Home Companion (2006), she and Lily Tomlin played singing sisters, the two surviving members of a family act known as the Johnson Girls. "Like the Carter family," Streep's character says. "But famous." The film, based on Garrison Keillor's famous, long-running live radio show, revolves around the final performance of a radio program, punctuated by musical acts: the Johnson Girls' repertoire, supplemented with mournful repartee and constant references to how much their momma loved their music, is a hilarious, poignant element.

There are other Streep musical moments on screen, "character songs", she is at pains to point out. In Hector Babenco's Ironweed (1987), where she starred opposite Jack Nicholson as a woman mired in alcohol, there is a scene in which her character sings as she remembered she once could. Over the closing credits of Mike Nichols' Silkwood, Streep can be heard singing Amazing Grace, in "a wavering, weak little voice", as she puts it. The film ends with the sudden, mysterious death of the woman she plays, anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood, and the song, with all its hesitant, unpolished uncertainty, sounds an elegiac, intimate note.

In Postcards From the Edge (1990), adapted from Carrie Fisher's novel, Streep's character, Suzanne - an actress with a drug problem, a gift for one-liners and a complicated relationship with her mother - has a couple of songs to sing. One is a version of the Ray Charles standard You Don't Know Me, a wistful performance in an informal social setting that carries with it all her character's doubts and feelings of ambivalence. Then, at the end, she's a woman transformed, belting out an assertive, triumphant quasi-country number called I'm Checking Out.

In fact, music was an early passion for Streep. She has described the first public intimation of her performing future, when she sang Oh Holy Child in French at a seventh grade concert. This led to singing lessons with Estelle Liebling, whose other pupils included Beverly Sills. In high school, Streep was a stalwart of musicals and homecoming queen. She studied at Vassar and at Yale, majoring in drama. She was seen as a prodigy. Playwright Christopher Durang called her "Yale's leading lady", saying "the school recognised her remarkable talent and worked her unmercifully". She had to make a decision, in fact, about which path she should follow. An old school friend recently wrote a piece for an online site dedicated to Streep, recalling the moment when Streep told her that "she was going into acting and would probably not be pursuing her singing".

To have a song to sing, Streep says, is to have something extra to perform with: "it makes things easier, and it sets you on the right path". On set, there's a different atmosphere for a musical: "you have to work as a group, you can't just fly in or phone it in. For Mamma Mia!, we came together about three weeks before we were to start filming to learn the dancing, and we were all in the same inept boat at that moment. And everybody bonded at that time. You feel like a theatrical troupe. You dance together, you sing together, you do duets and trios and it's a whole different thing from a film set".

Another factor in making it feel different, she says, was the nature of the creative team: Craymer, writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd, an experienced theatre and opera director, who had done Mamma Mia! on stage but was making her movie debut.

It was only the second time that Streep had worked with a woman director. (Susan Seidelman directed her in She-Devil in 1989: she has since made Julie and Julia, directed by Nora Ephron, which comes out next year.) There are still, she says, few opportunities for women to take charge of a film: "but it ebbs and flows, it's not anything you can track as a trajectory, and say that more and more women are working. Although I will say that in the United States, there are more women working on crews. That's not true in England, however."

On set, she says, there was a more inclusive feeling. "Phyllida had an authority, but it wasn't aggressive. And I loved her. Everybody loved her. The camera crew said, 'I would walk through fire for Phyllida Lloyd'. It's very difficult to establish that kind of atmosphere. There's a real hierarchy, especially in England; they call the director 'guvnor'. They wanted to call her ma'am', but she didn't want that. And then they didn't know how to respond. But she managed it all so gracefully somehow."

Streep recalls that her first Broadway show was a musical. "I'd done some plays at the Lincoln Center and in a repertory company in New York, but this was Broadway, and I was nervous." It was Brecht and Weill's Happy End, and she played a character called Hallelujah Lil. "I remember somebody coming in and saying" - and her voice drops to a tiny, fraught, but perfectly audible whisper - "'Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson are in the audience."' She pauses, then lets out a shriek that almost makes me jump, as she relives the moment. "And I couldn't even breathe. But then - the music came up, the overture, when I was standing in the wings. And I was there in the world of the play, where all the other things just don't intrude."

It was the same kind of thing, she says, arriving on set for the movie musical, all those years later. "When the music begins, suddenly you're held in the embrace of this moment. It's enveloping you and you're immersed in it. And you're not creating it from your emotional landscape, the landscape is being painted around you. And it's really a wonderful feeling."

Right now, she says, there is no new project on the horizon. "I've made six movies this year. I've never done that before in my life. And they were not small things. The musical alone should have almost killed me. I don't have any explanation for this, because there really is no trend for older actresses to get more work. But for some reason, this year, ba-boom, lots of things happened."

Mamma Mia! is in general release.

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