Abbacadabra: The Broadway Lovechild That Time Forgot

 

What if Into the Woods and Mamma Mia had a baby? And one of the “Les Miz” writers delivered that baby? Get ready to meet the musical mutant known as “Abbacadabra”!

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Before “Descendants”, before “Once Upon a Time”, before Shrek and even before “Into the Woods”, there was “Abbacabra.” Today’s post is about an obscure children’s musical and TV special that first premiered in France in 1983.This fairytale themed spectacle was later adapted for the stage in London (and produced by Cameron Mackintosh) that same year and for Dutch TV in 1984. (There’s also a version from Portugal, but I can’t find much info on it.) And yes, the title, “Abbacadabra”, is spelled correctly, because this ain’t just about magic- it’s about ABBA.
Naturally this was also before Mamma Mia, but the premise was the same: a musical on stage and on screen that used ABBA songs to tell the story. And like “Into the Woods,” the story featured a crossover of characters from different fairy tales, uniting against a common enemy. In fact, many of the fairytale characters featured in Abbacadabra are also present in Into the Woods, like Cinderella, the Big Bad Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood-
Holy crap, I know these are some of the most iconic fairy tales, so of course they’d be adapted pretty often, but still….is Stephen Sondheim a closeted ABBA fan? Did he look at this, scowl, and say “I can do better?” Did he cry himself to sleep after writing “Unworthy of Your Love” for Assassins, because he secretly felt “Lay All Your Love on Me” was actually the ideal song for that scene? How does James Lapine feel about ABBA?

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“I’m coming for you, Bjorn. Hissss….”

The story’s pretty basic, but there are variations across the English, Dutch, and French versions of the show. I barely know any French and I know even less Dutch, but Google Translate, visual clues from the videos and a few questions to a French friend of mine have helped fill in the blanks from the murky audio of the UK show. What all three versions have in common is the following: Some kids are hanging out after school and are antagonized by their teacher/librarian. Somehow, they are able to summon several fairytale characters from a book. The kids and the characters team up against the fairy Carabosse, played by the same actress as teacher-librarian, who tries to capture the characters on videocassettes or in a video game…or something (don’t ask me how that works) with the help of her henchmen. There are some challenges, but all ends happily.

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The original French cast. Er, what’s Aladdin doing down there? 

Carabosse, for those who don’t know, is the name of the evil fairy who cursed Sleeping Beauty. She was first named in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty ballet, but you know her better, of course, as Maleficent. Carabosse’s status as the ultimate baddie here makes me wonder even more if the people currently in charge of fairytale reboots have watched this special dozens of times. Theater nerds, especially those in the UK, should note that Carabosse was played in the UK version by the original Evita, Elaine Paige. But that’s not the only famous face in this show’s universe- in the original French special, Frida Lyngstad of Abba played Sleeping Beauty, and her song “Belle” (a version of “Arrival” with lyrics where she duetted with French singer Daniel Balavoine as the prince) became a big hit in France. The UK’s Cinderella was Finola Hughes, who became a soap star in the US and has appeared in many terrible movies like “Stayin’ Alive” and “The Apple”, and even played Emma Frost in the failed X-Men pilot “Generation X”. But the big one is the actor who played the UK Pinocchio….Sylvester McCoy. Yes, the 7th Doctor.

 

You can get up from the floor now, everyone. (And you thought Roberto Benigni seemed old for the role.)

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I wish this publicity for the London show included Sly in his Pinocchio costume, but no such luck. 

I should mention that Sly gives plenty his song, a reworking of “The Piper” called “I Can Pull Some Strings” plenty of energy, but the Italian accent he’s doing is so clichéd and awful that he’s less “Doctor Who” than “Doctor No” …as in “No, Sly, NO, NOOO, that voice you’re doing is ethnically insulting, STOP IT.”When he repeats “I can-a pool-a some STREENGS!” Sly sounds like the speech impediment-afflicted cousin of Bela Lugosi in “Glen or Glenda”

I’ve often said Pinocchio is one of the weirdest fairy tales that’s still told today (that will be brought up a LOT on this blog, I’m of Italian heritage so I’m sort of proud of its weirdness) and all three “Abbacadabra” versions of the character make good on that reputation, not just Sly. The guy in the Dutch version, Nico Haak, looks older than Sly did at the time, AND older than Roberto Begnini when HE played Pinocchio! He even has a mustache, and he’s a bit overweight. Combine that with his makeup, fake phallic nose and little boy-lederhosen, and he’s a disturbing, almost Lynchian sight to behold. Also, he’s wearing long strings that attach from his feet to his wrists, enabling him to move more like a puppet. Uh…wasn’t Pinocchio famous for being a puppet with NO strings, even pre-Disney?

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Can Nico….see us? 

The French Pinocchio was played by the amusingly named Plastic Bertrand. He’s a Belgian singer whose real name is apparently Roger, and his big hit “Ça plane pour moi”can be heard on the all-French soundtrack to the film “Ruby Sparks,” but I would recommend googling it instead because that movie makes me want to burn things and destroy public property. As Pinocchio, he wears a bow tie bigger than his head and performs his spotlight song with a bratty attitude perfect for the character. As Spinal Tap once said, it’s a fine line between stupid and clever, and reworking “Money Money Money” as “Mon nez, Mon Nez, Mon Nez” really dances all over that line when you learn the title phrase is pronounced like “Monet” and means ‘My Nose”. Not only is he SINGING ABOUT HIS NOSE, he asserts that despite what you might think, he’s not the son of Cyrano (DeBergerac) and calls his lying nature into question by rhyming “Cyrano” with “parano”, saying paranoid. While we’re working out the psychological revelation that the little wooden boy lies due to deep seated paranoia, Pinocchio references Cyrano’s comparison of his nose to “a rock, a cliff, a peninsula,” implying that he LIED when he said Cyrano wasn’t his father. It’s so unforgettable that I need an Advil.

The other character who stands out in all three versions is Carabosse. All three performers manage to make “Dancing Queen” into an effective villain song (that takes the form of a Macbeth-ish cooking show!) and look good doing it. I especially like the “Mad Max” look for Dutch Carabosse, and the fact that her hench-crows are wearing repurposed Heckle and Jeckle mascot costumes.

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The Dutch cast. 

The UK version is available in audio only (there aren’t even that many pictures!) and the audio’s not great, but if you want to hear the famous actors and understand the story and songs better (and you don’t speak French or Dutch) I’d recommend checking it out. The Dutch and French versions are a bit murky on screen, but the songs and low-budget effects and costumes make for tons of campy fun. The kids look bored, the older male actors look really out of place, and the Chroma Key sucks. If that’s your thing, follow along with the visuals and prepare for one wild ride.

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That’s Heckle and Jeckle! They totally ripped that design off! WHAT THE FU-

There are good songs in all three versions. “Making Magic” (“Super Trouper”) for Michael Praed as UK Aladdin is a sweet and fun song, and Finola Hughes gives the underrated “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room” a pleasant, dreamy tone in “When Dreamers Close Their Eyes.” As Snow White, Fabienne Thibeault’s hair looks more red than black, but she has a beautiful voice for “I Wonder’s” reworking as “Imagine-Moi”. I also thought the duet of “I Let the Music Speak” for Cinderella and Bluebeard in the French special (here called “Pareils et Memes” or “Same and Same”) was a great fit for this unlikely couple. And then there’s “Belle” (“Beautiful”) performed by Frida- she’s a serene and elegant Sleeping Beauty, and although her prince looks like a bit of a dork, he has a hauntingly sweet voice.

So why does it all kinda work(well, enough to get 3 adaptations!) despite how bizarre it is? Well, here’s my theory: the guy who created and wrote the French special in the first place was ALAIN BOUBIL, on of the composers of Les Miserables, and that guy can write about anything.

Okay, maybe not pirates, as the wall on Joe Allen’s says. But still….he nailed down a good idea and beat Sondheim to the punch on it! That’s gotta count for something.

LINKS! All credit to respective owners and posters, not mine

UK audio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kbl7CLmVyk

Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO-nN_AzsNk

Lyrics in English: (Only the songs that were singles are included) http://philippe.benabes.free.fr/abbacadabra/Evers_words.htm

Lyrics in French: http://www.lyricsmania.com/abbacadabra_lyrics.html

Dutch special: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2iMoo1IjDE

French special, part 1 of 10 (other parts on this channel) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lpBCeJBFfY

More background: http://luvgirlgroup.blogspot.com/2013/12/abbacadabra-30th-anniversary.html

The all-knowing source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbacadabra

 

SUPER BONUS CONTENT! Roxie’s Fan Cast! 

If “Abbacadabra” ever came to Broadway (which it never will), this is who I would want to be in the cast. I used the UK version because that’s the version where I understood the plot most.

Carabosse: Christine Ebersole
Cinderella: Ciara Renee
The Beast: Christopher Seiber
Aladdin: Elijah Kelley
Pinocchio: Christian Borle
Sleeping Beauty: Rachel Bay Jones

Kids: Frenie Acoba, Sarah Charles Lucas (Not sure about the boys, but School of Rock and Matilda are bound to have two kids with the right stuff)

 

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