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What Would Muriel Think?

'Mamma Mia!' features a wedding story and ABBA hits. But the show's creators want audiences to focus on the plot, not the songs.

February 18, 2001|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a regular contributor to Calendar

LONDON — In an upstairs library at the quietly posh Covent Garden Hotel, Bjorn Ulvaeus is trying to convince a skeptical reporter that "Mamma Mia!"--the hit London musical that uses 22 ABBA songs to tell an original mother-daughter tale of cross-generational love on the eve of a Greek island wedding--is really all about the story.

"I hope that people halfway into the first act start forgetting these are ABBA songs," says Ulvaeus, who shows up early for the interview dressed not in a ruffled shirt or bell bottoms, but in head-to-toe black. His deep side part is the only evidence that this bearded, mild-mannered, mineral water-drinking man of 55 is, in fact, one of the members of the legendary pop band.

In this musical, opening Feb. 26 at L.A.'s Shubert Theatre, Sophie is a 20-year-old bride-to-be who invites three of her single mother's old boyfriends to the wedding, hoping to find her long-lost father in time to give her away. She sings "Honey, Honey" while giggling over her mother's diary with a pair of friends. "Take a Chance on Me" is given an Ethel Merman-ish turn by one of her mother's randy middle-aged girlfriends on the make, who bond over "Chiquitita" in another scene. A whole Greek chorus sings "I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 21, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Partners' names--ABBA's Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad divorced in 1981, while Bjorn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Faltskog split up in 1978. The pairings were incorrectly identified in an article about the show "Mamma Mia!" in the Feb. 18 Sunday Calendar.

In a book by British playwright and television writer Catherine Johnson, the characters are not practitioners of the sincerest form of flattery, like Bjorn Again, the most notable of the ABBA cover bands. Or the ABBA-crazy heroine of the 1994 film "Muriel's Wedding"; or the lip-syncing drag queens in 1994's "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," the projects that unearthed ABBA from our pop culture subconscious and had us once again singing "Dancing Queen" in our dreams.

Those offbeat Australian films married high camp and gay culture with ABBA worship. "Mamma Mia!" opts for only the shyest homosexual side plot, with an ironic sensibility that amounts to little more than a show-long wink that we are all in on the joke. For the characters in "Mamma Mia!" have appropriated the songs to illustrate the plot twists of a mainstream West End musical.

But then, no one can really take away the songs of ABBA from Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad. Not Sophie or her mother. Not Bjorn Again or Muriel or the drag queens. Not even Bjorn himself. Yes, the songs have been snugly fit into the beginning, middle and end of this sentimental journey. But forget they're ABBA songs? Come on, Bjorn, that's impossible!

"It is?" he demurs, and chuckles his slow, quiet Santa's chuckle. "Well, that's my theory, because I forget. The idea was not to change the original lyrics, but to weave a story around that. When we finally decided let's go ahead, the idea was that the story's more important than the songs. We have to be really cruel, and whatever doesn't fit the story goes, however big a hit. We didn't squeeze in 'Fernando,' because there was no place for it. There's no room for 'Waterloo.' We cut 'Summer Night City' after the first previews because we wanted to get quicker into the story."

"Mamma Mia!" opened in London's West End on April 6, 1999, 25 years to the day after ABBA won the Eurovision song contest in Brighton, England, for "Waterloo." Billed as "the musical they never knew they'd written," "Mamma Mia!" broke box office records and made back its $3.5-million investment in only six months.

"I thought during rehearsals: 'This is quite good. This is entertaining,' " Ulvaeus says, speaking with a proper English accent. "But no one had a clue that people would laugh so much."

The reviews, however, were mixed. The Financial Times' Alistair Macaulay began his review by admitting his fondness for Shirley Temple movies and ". . . herewith vanishes my social life--by the fact that I actually enjoyed 'Mamma Mia!' " The Independent called it "ridiculously enjoyable." But the Hollywood Reporter called it "a banal, cliche-ridden story . . . all terribly silly," before acknowledging it was "infectious fun."


The ABBA revival has been going on so long now that it is hard to remember that desert of time--the 1980s--when ABBA was all but forgotten, having broken up in 1981. "ABBA was running out of energy; we didn't have as much fun in the studio as we used to," Ulvaeus says. "We felt: Nothing much more to give here." Married couple Bjorn and Frida had already broken up in 1978, and Benny and Agnetha would split up as well in 1981, although all remained friends (Frida is a small investor in "Mamma Mia!").

Ulvaeus and Andersson wanted to try something new and looked to the early musicals of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, such as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." "We were inspired by that, and toward the end of the ABBA period, we had gotten tired of the three-minute format," Ulvaeus says.

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