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POP MUSIC | POP EYE

Abba Abba Hey

May 30, 1999|RICHARD CROMELIN, from London

To fans, ABBA is an underrated band whose '70s hits combined Beatle-esque buoyancy with Spector-level production genius.

To skeptics, ABBA is a commercial hit machine responsible for some fluffy pop confections.

To Londoners in 1999, though, ABBA is god.

Nearly two decades after the Swedish quartet broke up, ABBA-mania is raging full force in England's capital. ABBA's "Gold--Greatest Hits" recently returned to the top of the album chart. A single called "Thank ABBA for the Music"--an ABBA medley performed at the Brit Awards show by a gathering of young pop stars--was a Top 10 hit. Bjorn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha grace the May cover of the hip music magazine Mojo, and clone bands (including one called Fabba) are working the city's clubs.

But ABBA fever reaches its peak at the 1,600-seat Prince Edward Theatre, where the musical "Mamma Mia" is setting box-office records. Playwright Catherine Johnson's contemporary story concerns a mother and her daughter with conflicting views on love and independence, but the show's real juice comes from the 22 ABBA songs that are cleverly woven into the tale.

"This is the musical they never knew they wrote," "Mamma Mia's" co-producer Judy Craymer says, referring to ABBA's songwriting team of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. "ABBA was getting very serious at the end of their time as a pop group, and their songs are so theatrical, like 'Winner Takes It All' and 'Knowing Me, Knowing You.'

"The time was right for this. In England things have gradually changed, and you didn't have to be guilty to like ABBA. They just crept back into people's lives."

Craymer is cautious about plans for moving "Mamma Mia" to the States, a less ABBA-obsessed nation. "L.A. would be a very interesting place to play, and San Francisco," she says. "The interesting thing with America is whether they would take it without the ABBA fever, but as a musical at face value, saying, 'Hey, every song's a foot-tapper here.' "

But the executive who will oversee Decca Broadway Records' U.S. release of the original cast album--possibly later this year--is more bullish on "Mamma Mia's" prospects.

"It will be a priority release," says Denis McNamara, Polydor's vice president of international A&R. "The intention is to get 'Mamma Mia' here, and based on everything I've seen in the last few years, we anticipate this to be hugely successful in the U.S."

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