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Tinkering readied ABBA songs for stage


They've got one of the world's hottest stage productions to their credit, yet they've called it "the musical we never knew we wrote."

And, in fact, they didn't. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus are the tunesmiths of the 1970s Swedish pop machine ABBA, but they're not the prime movers behind Mamma Mia! The musical has just begun its second U.S. tour with productions in Miami and at Washington's National Theatre, where it opens tomorrow and runs through June 8 with eight performances a week.

When producer Judy Craymer went to them with the idea of building a musical around ABBA's hit songs, Ulvaeus knew that trying to adapt an existing pop song library into a musical would be as hard, maybe harder, than writing a show from scratch. He and Andersson had tried - and failed - with it in 1984 with Chess.

"I see people out there today, desperately trying to do it. There are brilliant pop songs out there, but they don't have a story," Ulvaeus says. "I have been told this is why Mamma Mia! works. Those other people don't realize that their songs have to tell a story."

But at first "neither Benny nor I believed in it," Ulvaeus says. "He was never involved. When I asked him, he said, 'OK, you go ahead and see what happens.'"

Nothing happened for several years. Then Craymer hired writer Catherine Johnson.

Johnson broke down the songs from the ABBA catalog by their lyrics. She sensed a mother-daughter story and began writing, eventually including 22 ABBA songs in her story about a single mom and her grown-up daughter's search for her father's identity. Another four songs turn up as snippets, and the 1974 European breakout hit Waterloo is sung as an encore at the curtain call.

Not all of the songs appear in their original form. With Ulvaeus' help, several lines of the title song were completely rewritten, and the ill-fitting second verse was dropped. Verses in other songs were moved around or dropped, and a few lines here and there changed to fit the story line.

"I liked my music to be very cutting edge - punk music, anarchy - music I thought was about something," Johnson says. "It took me quite a few years to realize that ABBA songs weren't just bubblegum music."

What went unnoticed by early critics, but is hailed today, is not just the songs' well-structured lyrics. They're often surrounded by multiple harmonies and the vocal ranges are enormous, with complex thematic lines.

The band came into being when Ulvaeus and Andersson were joined by soprano pop singer Agnetha Faltskog and mezzo jazz vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Soon the men were writing their songs for the women's voices, resulting in a string of 19 worldwide hits in seven years beginning in 1974.

That's part of their songs' suitability to musical theater, Johnson says: "They were already writing for characters, if you like."

Moreover, as Johnson settled into her assignment, she found that the group's hits worked well as part of a musical book. "I didn't have to worry about it because they're all like musical theater songs," she says.

The gimmick seemed all right for a show that was intended to serve ABBA's long-term fans with a modest run in a small London theater. Ulvaeus had been taken by surprise in the early '90s by the revival of interest in the group launched with the ABBA Gold album. But his Chess experience didn't lead him to expect any ABBA gold in the theater world.

"I said in 1981 when we gave the band up, 'This is the absolute end of it,'" Ulvaeus recalls. "I was very stupid to say that because I could have seen what happened to any other major act that had split up - that there would be a kind of renewal, something happening, a revival."

Yet there was still no thought of anything beyond a London engagement lasting a year or so. And then audiences started coming, first to out-of-town tryouts in Nottingham, then to London previews, and then opening night.

"The initial audience reaction was so great I couldn't quite believe it would stay on," Johnson says. "I thought, 'This is absolutely wonderful but we can only expect it to last for a couple of months until the next big thing comes a long and everything just fades away.'

"And as for Mamma Mia! making such a splash overseas, that didn't really occur to me at all. We just didn't think it would catch on in the same way, and I suppose I thought the humor wouldn't travel."

But it does. Besides the current D.C. and Miami versions, the London production heads into its third year in a few weeks. Another is playing Hamburg, Germany, and the seventh is touring the ABBA fan stronghold of Australia.

Jack Zink is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing company.

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