That Old Feeling: ABBA, Without Apologies

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ABB-solutely fab: 'Mama Mia' in New York

The Onion had it just right. A headline in the first post-Sept. 11 issue of the online satirical newspaper read: “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” Enough weight-of-the-world news; let’s get back to fuming over Gary Condit, worrying about Mariah Carey, laughing along with the comedy stylings of the young Seann William Scott. We need a profound dose of the superficial. And, as if in answer to a nation’s prayer, “Mamma Mia!” has just arrived on Broadway. What could be more innocently mindless than a stage musical whose sole claim to popularity is its plundering of the song catalog of the blondest, blandest, whiter-than-whitest quartet in pop-rock history? Some would call it stupid bullshit set to music.

ABBA — two girls and two guys, three Swedes and a German-Norwegian — carry so much plastic baggage that it may be hard to listen to their music without cultural baffles. The men, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, wrote and played the songs; the women, blond Agnetha Faltskog and brunette Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, sang them. The foursome looked like dolls, dressed in polyester; and Bjorn, who wore a bizarre pomp for way too long, went through a bad hair year. They lacked the “depth” of post-Beatles pop stars, which is to say they didn’t pretend to be miserable. Instead, like a lot of other Scandinavians, they pretended to be happy. If critics cut them up and threw them in the ABBA-ttoir, it’s because the group committed the ultimate sin of omission in that serioso time: they had no social or political subtext.

Then there was the dreaded disco phase, in which they were fellow travelers. You can see the impulse in some middle-range ABBA songs, like “Voulez-vous” and “Lay All Your Love On Me” could be categorized as disco (though the first has likably honking saxes and the second soon veers into one of Andersson’s favorite forms, the anthem). Skeptics ignored the obvious musical connections — to the Beatles (in songcraft), the Mamas and the Papas (power harmonics) and Phil Spector (fuzzy, funky production values) — and saw ABBA as disco at its BeeGee-est and most egregious. When rock fans cried, “Death to disco,” they were backhandedly calling for the group’s ABBA-lition.

The group didn’t seem to care. They just did what they did: wrote, sang, played, toured. And they did it with enough skill, or calculation, to sell more records than anybody in the ‘70s. From April 4, 1974, when they won the Eurovision Song Contest with “Waterloo,” until their breakup in 1982, they saw nine of their singles go to #1 on the U.K. charts; 20 singles landed in the top 10. The group was huge throughout Europe and in Australia. In the U.S. they hit #1 with “Dancing Queen” and had three other top-10 hits, though no ABBA album made the top 10. In Britain, nine of their albums, including several Greatest Hits compilations, went to #1.

Their influence lingered through the 80s, though no one matched them as pop-songmeisters. If they had few successors, they had plenty of acolytes. At least five shows based on ABBA songs have played in London. Bjorn Again, an Australian “tribute” band, has toured 42 countries with its ABBA-reviated show; formed in 1988, it has now been together three years longer than the group they imitate. But someone must want to see the real thing: a while back, the four ABBA-riginals were offered $1 billion for a reunion concert tour. It could have been a back-payment for being the last pop group to create a body of musical work that was both of its time and beyond it.



THE APOLOGIA

I have none of the standard excuses for liking ABBA. The songs didn’t mean much to me when they were new; the first ABBA album I bought was “ABBA Gold,” long after they’d broken up. Unlike those hitting 30, I didn’t teethe on their music. Unlike some older folks, I didn’t do coke in at Studio 54 while “Waterloo” was piped over the P.A. system. I didn’t have anonymous sex in a bath house to the pulse of “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” And although I can sympathize with the nostalgia some gays feel for a group that provided background music for the ‘70s — the one decade when gays were robustly out of the closet and not yet in the hospital — I am not and never have been a dancing queen.

Nor can I claim to be the very hugest fan of “Muriel’s Wedding” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” the two Australian movies that in 1994 fixed ABBA in the empyrean of quasi-camp guilty pleasures. (The poster art for “Muriel” — a young woman in a white wedding dress, her arms outstretched, her upturned face radiant with hope — has been copied meticulously for the “Mamma Mia” icon.) Recall that Toni Collette, as Muriel, tells her new best friend that when she was lonely, “I sat in my room for hours and listened to ABBA songs. Since I met you and moved to Sydney, my life is as good as an ABBA song — as good as ‘Dancing Queen.’”

The drag queens in “Priscilla” are not so complimentary about the group whose songs stud their cabaret act. “I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again,” one of them aspirates huffily. “No more fucking ABBA!” Yet two of them close the show with a rollicking lip-synch of “Mamma Mia,” with Guy Pearce in blond wig as Agnetha and Hugo Weaving frizzily coiffed as Anni-Frid; when they pump out the chorus, all the hunky young lads in the mosh pit sing along. This final number underlines a couple of reasons why gays liked ABBA songs: they’re infectious fun — almost impossible to feel blue through — and they’re clever enough to be the modern equivalent to the catchiest old show tunes. Indeed, in the ‘70s Andersson and Ulvaeus were writing music that would have suited a truly contemporary Broadway, which instead ignored rock and pop composers and fell into recycling old styles and taking itself way too solemnly.

And that how I came, finally, to ABBA. To me, it was the group Benny and Bjorn were in before they and Tim Rice wrote the musical “Chess.” I loved “Chess” from the beginning, 1984, when it was issued as an album. (I have it on vinyl; I’m a bit of a collector’s item myself.) I wrote a story about the album in the March 18, 1985, issue of TIME. To save you a trip to the library, or a $2.50 reading charge, I’ll quote the relevant portions here:


“‘Chess’ has spun off two top-of-the-pops singles: the ballad ‘I Know Him So Well’ resided at No. 1 in Britain for four weeks, and the insinuating disco rap ‘One Night in Bangkok’ is a Top Five smash in half a dozen European countries. Now ‘Chess’ is readying to blitz America. Two versions of ‘Bangkok’ have cracked the Top Ten of the U.S. record charts. Next year the omnipotent Shubert Organization is expected to bring the show to Broadway... Andersson and Ulvaeus’ score ransacks melodic styles from plainsong to Puccini to Gilbert and Sullivan to Richard Rodgers to Phil Spector to hip-hop, in a rock- symphonic synthesis ripe with sophistication and hummable tunes. The Shubert Organization’s Bernard Jacobs, a man not easily given to rapture, says, ‘Very few scores prior to production have excited me as much as this one. None, in fact, since My Fair Lady.’”


With fully a dozen songs that still sing themselves in my head, “Chess” gets my vote, if anyone’s polling, for the finest Broadway-style musical of the ‘80s. Alas, its timing stank; a story of Cold War animosities, it arrived on the Broadway stage in 1988, as Gorbachev was being Comrade Nice Guy and the (old) Evil Empire had begun to crumble. The New York critics, who hadn’t cottoned to Rice when he and Andrew Lloyd Webber presented their “Evita,” didn’t like him 10 years after, either. “Chess” ran for only two months. And there I was, on closing night, singing and sobbing along.

The gay connection, soldered by “Muriel” and “Priscilla,” make ABBA seem like a benison for the emotionally vulnerable — cartoon critters chirping outside an invalid’s window. Maybe these songs do speak to the wounded. In a clever, indulgent, dismissive piece in TIME eight years ago, Richard Lacayo mentioned that ABBA was a favorite band of both Nelson Mandela and Kurt Cobain. Well, if these brave, tortured (or, in Cobain’s case, self-tortured) souls could pay their ABB-eisance, who am I to shrink from admitting the pleasure that Benny and Bjorn’s sophisticated tunes give me?



THE SONG

All right, some of their song titles seemed designed as repetitive exercises in remedial English: “Honey Honey,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” But I’m beguiled by the rhythmic underphrasing in the male vocals (for example, the bubbly, basso “soo-pahpah, troo-pahpah” in “Super Trouper); it has the inane intensity of a “Rain Man” mantra. And if you don’t fall for the backing vocal in “Take a Chance on Me,” we have nothing more to discuss. The girls sing the blithely selfless main lyric (“If you change your mind/ I’m the first in line”), while the guys whisper, “Take a chance, take a chance, take a chicka-chance-chance” as if they were street touts luring the sucker into a bunco game.

This makes ABBA sound like a just-slightly hipper version of the Archies, selling nursery rhymes with a heavy beat. I think their music is a little more cunning than that. For today’s lesson, class, turn to “Mamma Mia,” one of the groups’ early hits (1975) and the inspiration for the show now on Broadway. The song may not represent the pinnacle of Benny and Bjorn’s ABBA work, but it has musical and lyrical nuances that are as easy to describe as they are to miss.

The piece begins with a xylophoneish clang, like the clock inside the “Peter Pan” crocodile, in a minor key that establishes the emotional tension the female singer will soon enunciate. Then a fuzzy guitar joins in, whining gonadally. Frantic woman, sexy man. The vocal enters with a simple four-line verse. The major chords indicating the forthrightness of the speaker; a synthesized organ emphasizes her childish assurance:

I’ve been cheated by you
Since I don’t know when.
So I made up my mind
It must come to an end.

Then a bridge, vacillating (along with the speaker) between minor and major keys, backed by the tiptoeing xylophone. Now it’s not only the ticking of a hormonal game-show clock; it’s the skeleton dance of indecision:

Look at me now.
Will I ever learn?
I don’t know how.
But I suddenly lose control—
There’s a fire within my soul

And just as suddenly (on “lose”), the xylophone vanishes, to be replaced by the chugging percussion of an irresistible rock-’n-roll impulse that is released in two orgasm-triggering cymbal smashes:

Just one look and I can hear a bell ring.
One more look and I forget everything.
Oh-oh-oh-oh!

The chorus ought to explode into an ecstasy of surrender, but the lightly chagrined “Oh-oh” that precedes it warns that the whole song will be an argument between pride and desire. So the drums disappear and the xylophone accompaniment returns:

Mamma mia, here I go again.
My my, how can I resist you?
Mamma mia, does it show again,
My, my, just how much I’ve missed you?

The second half of the chorus is an admission of defeat, which the music mirrors in a familiar descending chord pattern. Yet the tone is jauntier, more direct, as if the speaker feels relieved to have confessed her desperate need for the cheater who has her under his spell:

Yes, I’ve been broken-hearted,
Blue since the day we parted.
Why, why did I ever let you go?

The chorus is resolved musically by landing nimbly back on the main chord, and lyrically by blending the frantic and the adoring. The singer, repeating the goofy oaths “Mamma mia” and “My, my,” retreats into a kind of poignant infantilism of emotional dependence:

Mamma mia, now I really know—
My, my, I could never let you go.

This is not a song above love; the word is never used. This is about obsession and the way it crushes the most resolute will. (Or, if you take to heart a later chorus — “Mamma mia, even if I say/ ‘Bye-bye, leave me now or never’/ Mamma mia, it’s a game we play/ ‘Bye-bye’ doesn’t mean forever” — it’s about emotional theatrics: trying to create the melodrama of leaving and returning, fury and reconciliation, that can keep a long-term affair alive.) Anyway, it’s as finely fashioned a number as you’ll find in post-Beatles pop. And you can dance to it.



THE SHOW

Since its premiere on April 6, 1999, 25 years to the day after ABBA’s Eurovision triumph, “Mamma Mia!” has become a worldwide hit. I know, because over the past two years, in three different countries — England (London), Canada (Toronto) and the U.S. (San Francisco) — I tried and failed to get tickets. Nothing worked: exploiting the good graces of TIME’s London office, begging publicists, standing in line for two hours hoping for return seats.

I finally caught up with the original production this May; and after two years and a couple of cast changes, it looked and sounded ragged. The performers, who are obliged to do little but exude good humor, had a bedraggled air. And the sound system was so amateur and unbalanced that I would have sworn all the songs were lip-synched, until one of the singers’ voices cracked. Well, I already knew, a presumably spiffier Broadway version would open in October (with an enormous $27 million advance). I figured I could change my mind, take a chance on “Mamma Mia!” Now it’s October.

As the lights go down in the Winter Garden Theatre, an unseen, authoritative voice concludes the usual pre-show caveats with this: “We must also warn patrons of a nervous disposition that platform boots and spandex are worn in this production.” (Gentle laughter from the audience.) They should be given another warning: that the first and second acts begin with twangs of an electric guitar so tympanic-membrane-splitting that Rush Limbaugh would ask them to turn it down. I can’t say whether these blasts are meant as a test or as torture, but for the rest of the evening the sound system works well. And the production has a more professional sheen here than it did in London.

We’re on an island in the Aegean, suggested by a building of off-white stucco fronting a blue sky; the island’s only evident connection to the mainland is a dingy dinghy called the Waterloo. Mother Donna (Louise Pitre, with a big, dusky alto voice, and mannerisms to match) runs the local taverna; her daughter Sophie is about to get married. Sophie (pretty, perky Tina Maddigan), who hasn’t been told who her dad is, find the names of three men mentioned in her mother’s diary and surreptitiously invites them to the wedding. They show up, to Donna’s chagrin, and complications, of a staid and predictable nature, ensue. As Sophie synopsizes 10 minutes before it’s all over: “You wait 20 years for a father, and then three come along at the same time.”(The plot is lifted from a 1969 Melvin Frank comedy, “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell,” starring Gina Lollobrigida as the mom and Janet Margolin and the daughter.)

In British musicals, including incomprehensible perennials like “Blood Brothers” and “Starlight Express,” it’s often hard to tell when they’re sending up tackiness from when they’re just being tacky. I wish the principal performers, most of them Canadian, had bit more stage presence (paging Faith Prince, Rebecca Luker and, always, Martin Short). I wish the studiously kitschy choreography, by Anthony Van Laast, had the wit both to satirize disco dancing and to display its sweaty, contentless vitality (paging Susan Strohman). I wish the show, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, could transcend its modest restraints and get jizzy — provide the kick the songs do (paging Baz Luhrmann, who could have slapped together a vertiginous phantasmagoria in about three days).

Instead, “Mamma Mia!” plays like its own bus-and-truck company. I kept waiting, and wading, through a lot of non-singing exposition for the show to come to life. It threatened to with the agreeably sung and staged title tune. You can almost hear the audience yearning to explode into applause at the song’s end. But instead of allowing that sweet release, Lloyd starts the set revolving, and the song ebbs meekly away. Note to would-be directors of musicals: a scene change is not a climax. CPR does not arrive until Donna and her two friends (Karen Mason and Judy Kaye) don their rocketship-retro garb and do the disco darnedest with “Dancing Queen.” Almost despite itself, the show gets on its feet.

The show set itself the easiest goal: affectless warmth playing off ABBA nostalgia. The show enjoys making fun of the disco era, and winks at the audience so much it seems to have soot in its eye. Playgoers familiar with ABBA get a giggle at the naive cunning of the song cues. Pitre sings “I don’t want to talk” and the crowd audibly smiles in recognition of another hit (“The Winner Takes It All”). Judy Kaye, one of the few Broadway pros on view, strikes a vampish pose and warbles, “If you change your mind...”; more laughs. Sometimes the songs fit the story, other times not. One of the men, singing “Our Last Summer,” is supposed to be recalling his long-ago Aegean holiday, but the lyric has him singing about Paris.

“Our Last Summer” does hint at the show’s theme: how middle-aged people use old pop songs to make them feel, and act, sexy. In the never-too-often-quoted Noel Coward aphorism: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.” I don’t think the ABBA music is cheap, but it’s plenty potent. And 22 songs of it, gamely presented, can eventually wear down the resistance of one or two stodgy Broadway purists. The critic in me says it’s an ABBA-ration. The fan in me says, I had an ABBA-solutely fab time.



THE FUTURE

Yet I want to see a real, new Andersson-Ulvaeus show on Broadway. And I have reason to think it will come. With Herbert Kretzmer (who worked on the West End version of the French musical “Les Miserables”), they are preparing an English production of their 1995 operetta “Kristina från Duvemåla” (Kristina from Duvemala). Based on the novels by Vilhelm Moborg, which inspired Jan Troell’s “Emigrants” films around the time ABBA was forming, “Kristina” traces the trek of a 19th-century Swedish couple as they try to make a living, and a life, in their barren town and then in the equally, but differently, inhospitable United States. The show has Swedes, Americans, Indians; a sacrificial whore and the death of a child; and — in case you think it sounds too solemn for your tastes — a bilingual fart joke.

“Kristina,” available on a Swedish CD, is not only the first substantial piece that Andersson and Ulvaeus have written in their native language; it’s the one of the most ambitious swatches of musical theater (39 songs!) since Gershwin’s 1935 “Porgy and Bess,” with one of the most serious, lyrically seductive scores since Rodgers and Hammerstein were creating their midcentury, midcult epics. Think of the loveliest melodies from “Chess” (“Mountain Duet,” “You and I”), then multiply by 2-1/2 hours. And if there’s not a surefire pop hit in the whole steamer trunk, “Kristina” boasts dozens of gorgeous numbers: folk tunes, marches, love songs, rage-against-the-midwinter-night songs and, of course, anthems — Benny’s done more of them than Francis Scott Key and Irving Berlin put together.

Don’t wait for “Kristina” to come to Broadway or the leather-bar juke box. Don’t even wait for Kretzmer to translate it for the West End (besides, you can find an English-language libretto on the net). Buy the CD and dive into the musical rapture. Tunes with funny titles — “Min Lust Till Dej,” “Ut Mot Ett Hav,” “Nej,” “Hemma,” “Min Astrakan,” “Glden Blev Till Sand,” “Vildgras” and the immortal “I Gott Bevar” (really!) — will be haunting you in no time. By the end of “Kristina,” I think you’ll be joining me in saying, to Benny and Bjorn: thank you for the music, three ABB-odacious decades of it.