Some of the most rapturous melodies ever heard in Carnegie Hall poured out of that grand old barn last night. The occasion was the first English-language production of Kristina, a musical based on the four Emigrants novels by Wilhelm Moberg. Spanning two continents and the Atlantic in between, the three-hour epic has all the makings of a thrilling stage experience: noble peasants, dying children, powerful voices, the dream of a new land. Most of all, a superb score. No wonder that, at the end, cheers and a standing ovation greeted Kristina's creators: two spangled Swedes, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus once, and always, the guys from ABBA.
Where have Benny and Bjorn been? Well, their music has been on Broadway, eight times a week for the past eight years, and in theaters around the world. Mamma Mia!, the show based on Andersson and Ulvaeus' ABBA songbook, has been the major theatrical hit of the past decade and an international blockbuster of a movie. But those tunes are old; ABBA burst on the scene in 1974 by winning the Eurovision competition with Waterloo, and the quartet Andersson, Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad lasted eight more years, breaking up in 1982. Then what? The lads did what songwriters like Irving Berlin and the Gershwins used to do after proving themselves on the pop charts: they wrote a Broadway-style musical.
Teaming with lyricist Tim Rice (who wrote Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber), they produced Chess as a two-disc album in 1984. The stage version spawned three Top 10 hits "One Night in Bangkok," "Nobody's Side" and "I Know Him So Well" and impressed many listeners as having the richest score of the decade. Or, he added defiantly, any decade since. Andersson, who had shown a mastery of the pop idiom as composer of the music for the ABBA songs (Ulvaeus wrote the words), tapped a symphonic romanticism that wedded Richard Rodgers to the brassier modern idiom. The Andersson-Ulvaeus partnership was poised to dominate Broadway.
Instead, they went home, where Andersson had an even more ambitious idea: to compose Kristina fran Duvemala (Kristina from Duvemala) as a sung-through national epic, in a style that would span folk tunes, symphonies and musical theater. Ulvaeus, adapting the Moberg novels which had served as the source for two popular Swedish films in the '70s, The Emigrants and The New Land also had a radical notion: for the first time in his career, he'd write his lyrics in his native language.
In 1995 this lush pop opera was released, once again as a concert album. Nearly four hours long and containing a staggering 39 songs, the piece was staged in Stockholm in 1997 and ran for nearly four years. The three-disc CD topped the local charts but was never issued abroad. Herbert Kretzmer, who had anglicized the French musical Les Misérables, worked with Andersson and Ulvaeus on an English translation, yet despite the seismic success of Mamma Mia!, the new show never left Sweden.
But here it was, last night, at Carnegie Hall, played before the blondest, most Scandinavian audience likely to be assembled in New York City, except, perhaps, for a Prairie Home Companion performance. And what a treat people got; there's nothing like the spectacle of nearly a hundred singers and musicians gathered on a famous stage to present a work that deserves to be renowned. Sung in English and trimmed by about an hour (losing a few favorite numbers in the process), this Kristina may not have the sweep and sonic magnificence of the album, but it's still likely to be the definitive reading of the new version.
Set in the 1840s and '50s, it focuses on the lives of Kristina (powerfully sung here, as on the original album and on the Stockholm stage, by Helen Sjoholm) and her husband Karl-Oskar (Russell Watson, the Salford factory worker known in England as "the people's tenor"). Nearly starved by crop failures in their native Smaland, Karl-Oskar and his brother Robert (Kevin Oderkirk, who earned vigorous shouts with each of his numbers) resolve to leave the land their ancestors have farmed for a thousand years and go to America. Despite Kristina's severe reservations, that's what they do, accompanied by Ulrika (Louise Pitre, the original Broadway mother in Mamma Mia!), the town whore who becomes Kristina's closest friend. In Minnesota, life is nearly as harsh; the characters are still buffeted and bullied by fate. Essentially stoic, passive characters, Kristina and the others triumph by surviving by outliving their plagues and tribulations until they don't. Endurance is heroism.
Jumping from one crisis to another, Kristina may prove not only too epic but too episodic and far too dour for a Broadway audience. The age of the serious musicals, your Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera, ended abruptly when The Producers and Mamma Mia! showed that theatergoers preferred perky, gaudy, old-fashioned musical comedies. But Kristina should find a constituency among those who love hearing wonderful music sung by gifted voices. If any naughty folks last night recorded the show, they should immediately post some of its instant classics: Robert's devastating solo "Gold Can Turn to Sand," the rollicking girl-group number "American Man," the anthemish "Summer Rose" and a whole sheaf of romantic duets, the most memorable of which is Kristina's and Karl-Oskar's "I'll Be Waiting There." Not to bring the show to the stage or at least to a CD or a DVD of this concert would deprive audiences of the most luscious score since ... well, Chess.
About a decade ago, one promoter offered ABBA a billion dollars, easily turned down, for a reunion tour. But the group was nowhere near as notable for its onstage electricity, for the performing verve and preposterous costumes, as for its songs. Now that Kristina seems headed for a fuller life in the West End or on Broadway, ABBA fans all lovers of irresistible tunes that lodge in your internal iTunes and never go away may have one more chance to tell Benny and Bjorn, "Thank you for the music."