Show Business

ABBA-solutely Fabulous

Andrew Clark May 22 2000
Show Business

ABBA-solutely Fabulous

Andrew Clark May 22 2000

ABBA-solutely Fabulous

Show Business

Andrew Clark

There. The ABBA has been applied. It will burrow deep into the grey matter. It will shoot around the neurotransmitters. It will play at its relentlessly happy clip for the duration of this article. It will control you. See that girl. Watch that scene. Dig in the Dancing Queen.

You might as well get the music in you now. Seconds after the hit ABBA musical Mamma Mia! opens officially in Toronto on May 23, journalists across the country will begin hailing the ABBA revival from the rooftops. Don’t believe the hype. There is no ABBA revival. How could there be? The famous palindrome from Sweden—two men and two women wearing silver and gold platform shoes, pastel neckerchiefs, tank tops and derrière-clinging pants—never went away. “There are only two kinds of people,” says ABBA fan Alison Benn, a 29-year-old Ottawa-based international market analyst, “those who like ABBA and those who like ABBA but won’t admit it.”

Well, OK, if you don’t count those who hate ABBA. Yet there is no denying that ABBA’s sales loom above the music industry like a towering platform boot. Every hour of every day around the world, 138 ABBA records are sold (that’s 3,300 per day). Since the group debuted in 1973, it has sold 330 million albums, CDs and tapes worldwide. ABBA music figures prominendy in such movies as Muriel’s Wedding ( 1994) and The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994). ABBA tribute bands such as Bjorn Again and ABBAlanche traverse the globe, keeping the fire alive. The Irish group Westlife topped the British charts in 1999 with their cover of the ABBA tune I Have a Dream. The “Official ABBA News Service” keeps fans informed with online updates. Even U2’s Bono has called ABBA “one of the greatest pop groups of all time.” And Mamma Mia!—which opened last spring in London and became the hit of the season—is already the best-selling show in the 93-year history of Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. Advance-ticket sales for the run, which ends in September, exceed $8 million. All four ABBA members are

Mamma Mia! features a light plot, an old-fashioned ending and 22 songs from the group that defined a decade for many

expected to attend the opening of the mostly Canadian (28 in a cast of 30) production—the first time in five years that the group will have appeared in public together. It’s all so ABBA-solutely fabulous.

An interview with Björn Ulvaeus, ABBA’s lyricist and guitarist, inevitably conjures up all the teenage punk and heavymetal fans who, back in the 1970s, dreamed of taking a sledgehammer to every ABBA album in creation. To North American rockers too cool to “feel the beat from the tambourine” in Dancing Queen, ABBA was a Nordic plague. But 55-year-old Björn possesses a cavalier cool that could win over the most diehard AC/DC devotee. Visiting Toronto recendy, he laughed uproariously when told of the false urban legend that he and the other male in the group, co-writer and keyboard player Benny Andersson, wife-swapped their respective spouses, ABBA lead singers Agnetha Fältskog (the blond) and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the non-blond). He displays wry wit as he describes why, earlier this year, ABBA turned down a $1-billion (U.S.) offer to reunite and tour. “If people like ABBA they like the image of ABBA back then,” he says. “Why would anyone want to revisit it? And besides, when you divide it by four, it’s only $250 million per person.”

Before ABBA emerged in the early 1970s, Sweden was nowheresville on the international pop-music map. Agnetha and Anni-Frid were both respected Swedish singers. Benny and Björn were established rock and folk musicians. “It would never have happened if we weren’t together,” recalls Björn. “It was a way of combining our work and private lives.” They threw together their first initials and dubbed themselves ABBA. In 1974, the group won the Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo, beating out Olivia NewtonJohn. ABBA spent the remainder of the decade on top of the charts. Syrupy hits such as S. O.S., Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia sweetened radios and eight-track players, sticking permanently in the collective memories of generations.

By the late 1970s, success began to erode the group. The women wanted to forgo touring in order to spend more time at home raising their children (Björn and Agnetha had two, while Anni-Frid had two from a previous marriage).

ABBA began to tour less, compensating by pioneering the use of music videos to promote album sales. But the pressure proved too much. Björn and Agnetha divorced in 1978;

Benny and Anni-Frid followed in 1981. Ironically, this troubled period produced the

The band’s record sales loom above the music industry like a towering platform boot

ABBA hits The Winner Takes It All and Super Trouper. “We had a great creative stretch after the divorces,” says Björn. “There was a joy that came out of realizing that we could still work together.” In 1983, the group released its last album, Thank You for the Music. ABBA disbanded shordy afterward.

Björn and Benny decided to maintain their songwriting partnership and moved into the realm of musical theatre. Their first effort, 1984’s Chess—The Musical, produced the hit single One Night in Bangkok. In 1995, the pair opened the musical Kristina Fran Duvemala, based on a Swedish folk legend; it became the most successful musical to ever open in Sweden. The idea for an ABBA musical was born when Björn attended a performance of Grease. “I could see the potential,” he says. “The songs were uplifting with a lot of hits.”

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The Seventies nostalgia that is driving Mamma Mia! follows the 20-year rule for decade resuscitation—after 20 years a decade can be cool again. In the 1970s, there was Grease and Happy Days. In the 1980s, there was The Big Chill and The Wonder Years. Skip to the end of the millennium, and we have That Seventies Show and Mamma Mia! Set on a Greek island, Mamma Mia! tells the story of Sophie, the single mother of

Donna, a young woman who is about to be married. There is just one problem—Donna has no one to walk her down the aisle. Sophie, who enjoyed the sexually liberated 1970s with gusto, admits that there are three former flames who might be Donna’s dad. In a bid to determine the truth, all three potential papas are called to the wedding. Somehow, 22 ABBA tunes are packed into this premise.

Mamma Mia! was written by Cather1 ine Johnson, a 42-year-old Bristol-bred I playwright with roots in the British al! ternative theatre. She won the job after two previous writers failed to conjure up a plot that caught the fancy of Mamma Mials producers, who include Björn. In her youth, Johnson considered ABBA “uncool,” but she has discovered that the group’s hits have an intrinsic theatricality. “Their songs are very personal and about relationships,” she observes. “They are supposed to be sung in character. They are written by men to be sung by women.” Johnson’s biggest challenge was weaving ABBAs songs into a strong narrative. She decided to keep the plot light, and drew on time-tested musical devices (mistaken identity and mishaps), driving the whole package to an old-fashioned happy ending. The message is suitably broad—in the words of Johnson, Mamma Mials moral is, “It is great to be independent, but it’s not the end of the world to let a man into your life.” Mamma Mials Toronto cast feamres veteran actress Fouise Pitre {Les Misérables, Piaf) as Sophie and 24-year-old neophyte Tina Maddigan as Donna. Pitre empathized with her character’s dilemma. “I was there dancing in the discos when this stuff was still new,” she says. “Sophie is a lot like me. She is a very forceful, can-do kind of woman.” Maddigan, who grew up in Newfoundland, was exposed to ABBA at age 5. “My aunt would come over and babysit,” she says, “and we’d bounce up and down on the couch and sing to Waterloo or Dancing Queen. I’ve loved it ever since. ABBA will never die.”