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THEATER BEAT

`Mamma Mia!' Here it goes again

The ABBA musical will celebrate its fifth year on Broadway next month. Songwriters' projects include a film version of the play.

September 01, 2006|J. Wynn Rousuck | Baltimore Sun

"When we split up in 1982, I thought this was it. I thought you would hear an ABBA song played every here and there and now and then, but not any more than that."

How wrong Bjorn Ulvaeus was. Now 61 and speaking from his home outside Stockholm, the former guitarist for the Swedish pop group could never have guessed that nearly a quarter-century after the group disbanded, ABBA's music would continue to be heard live around the world nightly.

And Ulvaeus doesn't even have to pick up a guitar. That's because the music is the score of "Mamma Mia!," the international hit musical that pairs a romantic plot -- about a bride-to-be's attempt to identify her father -- with 22 of ABBA's greatest hits, from "Super Trouper" to "Dancing Queen."

Since opening in London in 1999, "Mamma Mia!" has been seen by more than 27 million people worldwide and taken in more than $1.6 billion at the box office. To borrow the title of another ABBA song: "Money, Money, Money," indeed. There are currently 11 productions on stages from Osaka, Japan, to Las Vegas.

On Oct. 18, "Mamma Mia!" will celebrate its fifth anniversary on Broadway. Ulvaeus hopes to be there.

Ulvaeus was in New York this year for another project. In March, he and his ABBA songwriting partner, Benny Andersson, participated in a developmental workshop of their musical "Kristina." Based on the Swedish epic novel "The Emigrants," by Wilhelm Moberg, the musical is an account of 19th century Swedish emigrants to America. It ran for three years in Sweden but hasn't been produced elsewhere.

Ulvaeus is eager to see "Kristina" staged in this country and, particularly, on Broadway. "It's an American saga really, so America is the obvious choice to start the English version," he says.

That's not his only American project. Early next year, Ulvaeus expects pre-production to begin on the movie version of "Mamma Mia!," which will be produced by Tom Hanks' company, Playtone (best known for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Phyllida Lloyd, director of the stage show, will direct the film.

The seeds for "Mamma Mia!" were planted in the 1980s when British producer Judy Craymer -- who had worked with Ulvaeus and Andersson on their first musical, "Chess" -- suggested creating something new from the ABBA catalog. Ulvaeus was skeptical, Andersson even more so.

Then Ulvaeus took his two younger daughters to a revival of "Grease" in London. " 'Grease' has a lot of hit songs, it's very uplifting and romantic, and it's a thing for the whole family," he remembers thinking. "I thought maybe this is what it could be."

But when "Mamma Mia!" premiered in London, he worried about audience reaction. Specifically, he was afraid theatergoers would expect the show to be a docu-musical about ABBA. He did numerous interviews to counteract this preconception, but sitting in the theater on opening night, he remembers, "I sort of knew half the audience anyway would think it was the story of ABBA. They were confused the first 10 minutes, very confused. Then suddenly I could see smiles, [people] saying, 'Oh, this is what it was all about.' "

The show was scheduled to open in New York on Oct. 18, 2001, and was in rehearsals on Sept. 11. After the terrorist attacks, Ulvaeus discussed with producer Craymer the possibility of canceling or at least postponing the opening. "She talked to the people in New York," he recalls, "and they said, 'No, please don't do that. The best you can do for New York at that time is to continue.' "

The advice proved valid. Referring to the show's subsequent success, he theorizes, "My guess is that the timing was right. The big musical hits before that had been more the somber, Lloyd Webber kind and 'Les Miserables' and all of that, and I think America, and England, too, was ready for something funny and uplifting. Plus the catalog obviously is something that everybody knows."

Even before the Broadway opening, an American and European consortium offered the disbanded band $1 billion to regroup and tour. The group considered the offer but ultimately turned it down.

"You don't just say no to something like that, because you can do so much good for that kind of money," Ulvaeus explains. "But in the end, we all said no. I don't know why the others said no, but for me it was going to be 100 concerts around the world and television and sponsoring and so much that I thought, it's going to kill me or, if it doesn't kill me, that year is going to take 10 years out of my life. Is it worth it? I came to the conclusion, no, it's not."

He had another concern as well. Audiences, he feared, would expect to see them as they were, not as they had become. What ABBA was in its 1970s heyday was a band made up of two married couples. The group's name was formed from the initials of the members' first names -- Anni-Frid Lyngstad and her husband, Benny Andersson, and Bjorn Ulvaeus and his wife, Agnetha Faltskog.

Both couples subsequently divorced, but they are still in touch. Ulvaeus and Andersson continue to work together. Anni-Frid -- who is known as Frida -- "comes to visit every now and then," Ulvaeus says. He and his ex-wife have a granddaughter, and "we get together on her birthdays."

Although the band won't be reuniting, there is one revival Ulvaeus hopes will happen. "Chess" -- the musical he and Andersson co-wrote with lyricist Tim Rice -- received withering reviews in New York in 1988 and closed after two months.

However, it has done well elsewhere. "It's playing in various versions as we speak," Ulvaeus says of the musical, about a Cold War-era tournament that pits an American against a Soviet.

And, he adds, "Several people want to revive it [on Broadway]. Ultimately, to have that revenge in New York -- that would be nice."

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