Theatrical at Heart

What on earth is it about ABBA? Is it the buoyancy of the music—its shameless, unadulterated pop-ness? The fanciful, shiny, out-there costumes? The beat? The fantastic fusion of the voices of the four members—Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Agnetha Faltskog? Some people may scoff, but anyone would be hard pressed to deny being able to sing a few bars of almost every song on ABBA Gold (sales of which remain strong today). Still, despite getting a little sheen of indie hipness in the early '90s when ABBA songs were included in the films Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding, the humorless reign of grunge and the overly earnest generation of unpluggeds has forced ABBA fandom to become somewhat of a guilty, hidden pleasure.

But now, with the opening on Feb. 26 at Los Angeles' Shubert Theatre of Ulvaeus and Andersson's Mamma Mia!, a new musical based on the songs of the Swedish Fab Four, this music has once again been launched out of the karaoke bars, indie films, and collective unconscious and into the streets. Or at least into the theatres. Produced by Judy Craymer (who executive produced Chess, a musical Ulvaeus and Andersson collaborated on with lyricist Tim Rice), directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with book by Catherine Johnson, Mamma Mia! has enjoyed rave reviews in London, as well as extreme popularity with English audiences (and with Canadian audiences in Toronto, for that matter). The music, it seems, never fails to bring audiences to their feet—and, reportedly, into the aisles. So maybe ABBA-mania isn't experiencing a resurgence—perhaps it's been with us all along, as much as, say, the need to dance.

All of this is something that former pop icon, songwriter, composer, and producer Ulvaeus seems to take in bemused stride. A laid-back, soft-spoken man with a youthful glint in his eye, Ulvaeus, who has been writing songs since he was a teenager in Sweden, refers to Mamma Mia! as "the musical we [Ulvaeus and partner Andersson] never knew we had written." Set on a mythical Greek island, the play tells of a young girl—the daughter of a single mother—who is about to get married. She wants very much for her father to walk her down the aisle. The problem is that her mother, a veteran of the sexual revolution, doesn't quite know which of her former lovers is the girl's father. It's a comic, lighthearted musical.

And, of course, it includes many (22 to be exact) of ABBA's most loved songs: "Dancing Queen" "Take a Chance on Me" and "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme," to name a few. The theatrical format is not something entirely new to either Andersson or Ulvaeus. A fan of musicals, Ulvaeus said they were inspired by innovative musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as by classics like My Fair Lady. But even before that, Ulvaeus contended during our recent interview, "The fascination started with having drama and music working together."

Stage to Stage

Of course, this interest in combining various elements onstage had its roots in ABBA's live performances. The group always seemed to be very aware of the use of spectacle on stage, that rock concerts could be a form of theatre. Ulvaeus himself is quick to point this out: "On our last tour, we had written a mini-musical, which we performed onstage. It was very, very simple, but it was our first attempt." And that contained the song "Thank You for the Music." As ABBA wound down ("ABBA lost energy toward the end," Ulvaeus conceded), Ulvaeus and Andersson were beginning to look for other forums for their music—"something with a bigger format." And it's easy to see, when talking to him, that Ulvaeus is a man who would need a bigger format. He is at once intensely visual and aural, describing writing music and envisioning scenes with an equal intensity and passion.

For Ulvaeus, the process of songwriting and writing musicals is very organic and internal. "The songwriting process begins in complete thin air," he explained. "And always with music… you play around with the chords, with little fractions of melody, then you work on fitting them together." And what of the visual aspect of theatre? The storytelling? That, too, is a completely internal, somewhat ethereal process for Ulvaeus. About the staging of Mamma Mia!, he said, "The image that I had in my head writing the lyrics is the same that is in the show." As an example, he offered, "At one point in the show, the father is explaining to his daughter what divorce is like. When I wrote those lyrics, what I had in mind was an empty house, with cardboard boxes around. That image is used in the show. Lots of ABBA's songs unfolded as stories. And that's why, they tell me, they work so well."

Though Ulvaeus is certainly not the type of person who seems to look back very much—as a matter of fact, while talking to him, you get the distinct feeling that his mind is already years ahead, planning his next endeavor, envisioning his next project, hearing his next song—when he does discuss his past life as a pop sensation (ABBA, to date, has sold approximately 350 million albums worldwide, and many share the view expressed by U2's Bono that ABBA is "one of the best pop groups that ever was"), it's with a clarity, humility, and directness that's almost disarming.

"When Benny and I wrote, we never, never thought it would go down so well," he said emphatically. "We really wrote for ourselves, which is why, from one hit to the other, there was always a difference. I mean, we had our ears to the ground, as any pop writers would. Pop is about that—listening to others, and then you take it further. And yet," he paused reflectively, "looking at it now, we were sort of separate from the rest of the scene in the '70s. We were not trendy. Not trendy at all. And I think that's a strength. Lots of the songs sound quite fresh still. And quite buoyant and happy. Whereas other music around was very serious." He paused and flashed a teasing grin. "Especially from this country," he added, referring to the U.S. and its generation of pretentious classic rockers. "Very, very serious."

Still Famous After All These Years

Asked what his life was like as a pop star and as part of the phenomenon known as ABBA, Ulvaeus was simultaneously pleasantly flattered and dismissive: "It never looked that way to me. You have to understand, we were living in Stockholm, just writing and recording. We were not on the road a lot like other people. We had everyday lives in Stockholm. I would walk the streets, and everyone would know who I was, but they wouldn't have bothered me."

Though when considering ABBA's longevity (it's estimated that every hour of every day, more than 130 ABBA records are sold) and when told that Tina Turner has cited "Dancing Queen" as one of her favorite songs, Ulvaeus is enthusiastic, calling such things, "wonderful, fulfilling, and flattering."

Ulvaeus very easily distills ABBA into its most basic elements: "Part of ABBA's style was definitely the two girls singing together. Sometimes in unison there would be this fantastic sound. Frida is a mezzo-soprano, and Agnetha is a true soprano. There would be this amazing sound when Frida would strain herself to get up to where Agnetha was." He smiled, the way only a man truly inspired by what he's discussing can smile. "A unique sound, which I could hear miles away."

Does he ever miss being onstage? Have a twinge of nostalgia about his days in the spotlight? "No," he said emphatically. "Not in the least. Benny and I are essentially writers and producers." Besides, he said, he finds "greater freedom in the theatre."

And thanks to Ulvaeus' love of this "freedom" that live theatre offers, Mamma Mia! audiences are experiencing it, too. In shows in London, audience members frequently get up and dance to the music. Of course, this is fine with Ulvaeus. "That's what happened during previews in London," he explained. "We could see that even though people followed the story all the way through, toward the end they wanted so much to take part. So we invited them in."

His plans for the future include a revival of Chess (which had a good run in London and a somewhat shorter stay as a revised version on the New York stages), and he is working on translating a musical that was written in Swedish.

As for other musicals he's enjoyed, Ulvaeus stopped to think, then offered, "Well, Les Miz is a milestone," but "good ones are few and far between. Not a lot of today's young people have interest enough to spend three, four, or five years on one project. But they'll get old, as well," he laughed, "and they'll come to like it, because it's fascinating. It's a world where you combine everything—drama, dance." He added, smiling, "It's all there." BSW