The Musical Theatre Legacy of ABBA
Opening night is only 23 days away, and there’s been a flurry of activity getting ready for the debut of our Fall season and the KVTA premiere of Mamma Mia! But before you launch into your own rendition of “Dancing Queen” in anticipation, I’d like to tell you a little about ABBA’s origins, their rise to fame, and the music and musicals you’ve probably never heard of before…
The rise to what would become ABBA began in the summer of 1966 when Björn Ulvaeus met Benny Andersson, writing their first song together just a few weeks later. It was in the spring of 1969 that the songwriting duo met the two women who would not only become the other half of the group, but their wives as well, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (also known as Frida). Between 1969 and 1974, the group went through several iterations and group names. In 1974, using the initials from each of their first names, Benny, Björn, Agnetha, and Anni-Frid crafted the group’s final name, ABBA, and scored their first big hit, “Waterloo”. Soon after, it was Number One on the charts all over Europe, even reaching the Top Ten in the US.
The group’s popularity would continue through 8 more years and 8 studio albums when in 1982 they would decide to take a break, a break that has ultimately lasted over 35 years. In spite of that, their popularity continued and has seen several revivals, including the London opening of the hit musical Mamma Mia! in 1999, a successful movie version in 2005, and a movie sequel in 2018, proving their universal appeal still lives on. However, this musical was no accident, it was a fulfillment of a long held desire of the songwriting engine of Andersson and Ulvaeus to go beyond studio albums and tour dates, and make their mark in musical theatre.
“Wait… There were ABBA musicals before Mamma Mia!?”
Before ever writing hits like “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen”, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus shared a dream of creating their own musical. Though neither songwriter had any real affinity for musicals, it was after hearing Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s album for Jesus Christ Superstar that they both agreed it was a challenge they wanted to take on. Unlike most musicals, the Rice-Webber creation was first released as a concept album. Meaning, before there was ever a stage production, the music had been composed, produced, recorded, packaged, and sold to the public, partially to fund any potential stage production, but to also create public awareness. And so started the duo's path into musical theatre...
The Girl with the Golden Hair
Beginning in late 1976, Anderson & Ulvaeus began work on what would be described as a “mini-musical”. A show in 4 acts, with no dialog, and a plot only driven by a narrator, and the music and lyrics, The Girl With The Golden Hair tells the story of a talented girl who leaves her home town to become a star, but once she finds success, she realizes she is trapped by her own fame. Performances featured both ABBA vocalists, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frind Lyngstad, in identical blond wigs portraying the girl. Reception by the audiences was mixed. It certainly must have been odd for those attending expecting to see a concert by ABBA being presented with a musical instead. However, what was well received was the music itself. In total, there were only four distinct songs and the entire musical only lasted 25 minutes. When ABBA began sessions to record their new album during the summer of 1977, three of those songs were selected to be used, including what would become one of the album’s most popular songs, “Thank You for the Music”.
Seeking to entertain a younger audience, ABBAcadabra was a series of children’s television productions based on the music of ABBA. Between 1983 and 1985, there were four productions in four languages: French, English, Dutch, and Portuguese. Based on fairy tales such as Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Snow White, the story’s cast included children and well-known adult singers. The French version even featured ABBA singer Frida Lyngstad as Sleeping Beauty. Songs and lyrics varied between languages and productions, as did the stories. While all of the songs were ABBA hits, the lyrics were changed to fit the storyline for each production. For example: for the French production, they took the song “Money, Money, Money”, changing the lyrics to “mon nez mon nez mon nez” (“my nose my nose my nose” in English). These productions also spawned soundtrack albums featuring both the music and narrations.
Arguably the duo’s biggest “pre-Mamma Mia!” musical came in 1984 when they teamed up with celebrated lyricist Tim Rice; best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Weber, and Disney hits such as Aladdin, Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, just to name a few. Based on an idea from Tim Rice, Chess is a politically driven, Cold War-era tale that follows an international chess tournament between two grandmasters, an American and a Russian, and their fight over the woman who manages the American player but falls in love with the Russian. This story was specifically written as a commentary on the sociopolitical ideologies of both the East and the West, and how they interact with one another; quite powerful for its time. The metaphor of chess flows throughout the story as governments and society treat the protagonists as simple paws in a grand game. The show’s most notable song was “One Night in Bangkok”, reaching No. 12 in the UK, and No. 3 in both Canada and the US. The album as a whole was well received, with Rolling Stone raving that the “dazzling score covers nearly all the pop bases”, and Time declaring that the “rock symphonic synthesis was ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes.”
Kristina från Duvelmåla (Kristina from Duvemåla)
Based on a series of novels by Sweedish author Vilhelm Moberg, Kristina från Duvelmåla follows the poverty-driven migration of a Swedish family to America in the 19th century. A family struggling to keep their children fed and crops alive during a drought feel they can no longer take the hardships given to them. The show premiered in Sweden in October 1995 and was given both public and critical praise for its engaging story and emotionally-charged scores. One critic wrote that Andersson and Ulvaeus “created a great Swedish musical that thematically touches on the great questions of our time” and compared Andersson’s musicality with that of Franz Schubert. However, one challenge to most audiences was its size. Described by one critic describing its “Wagnerian length” of a score that clocked in at nearly four hours. Its American premier was presented, in its original Swedish, in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a 90-minute concert version. The following day the concert was repeated at the Chisago Lakes High School in Lindstrom, MN, near where much of the events in Moberg’s original books took place. The Swedish production ran for nearly four years and over 650 performances and won several awards and captured the record of being the 2nd longest running musical in Swedish history.
While their other musicals have met with some success, it is clear that Andersson and Ulvaeus’ real popularity came from the songs of the group. Mamma Mia! is a photo album of ABBA’s biggest hits and has introduced new generations to their catalog; something no one could have predicted when the group was headed for apparent oblivion 1982. Instead, ABBA’s seemingly endless temporary break has afforded members the ability to remain out of the spotlight while allowing their musical artistry to remain center stage.
Join KVTA for an enchanting tale of love, laughter, and friendship at Lincoln Cultural Center on October 5 & 12 at 7:00 p.m. and October 6 & 13 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available online at www.KVTA.org or by calling the box office at 815-935-8510. This production of KVTA's Mamma Mia! is sponsored by The Daily Journal, Riverside Healthcare, Taylor Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM, and Taylor Ford of Manteno.