Text: Kurt Mällarstedt – Dagens Nyheter Sunday supplement – thanks to Magnus. Exclusive translation here with all the main points. Photos by Emma Eriksson, Peter Mountain and Axel Öberg.
At 1619 Broadway, a classical address in New York, stands The Brill Building, built in 1931 in finely and beautifully implemented art deco style; the entrance hall is poetic, a tribute to style. This building has been hired for post-production work on the film version of "Mamma Mia!", which premieres soon (London – 30 June, Stockholm – July 4).
Benny beams with joy and enthusiasm when he talks about his film work
Benny Andersson points out that many songwriters once took up residence right here. “Here sat Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, Burt Bacharach. The Gershwin brothers also, although that was a little earlier. A lot of songwriters in the era between the rock and pop – all had their place here. I want to know the place where Carole King sat, because she is so good. She has written so many fine songs. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow", "The Locomotion….".
Benny Andersson himself, has not had time to write any new songs during the busy months he has worked in The Brill Building; he has put the final details of the film’s music together. He shows off his hired synclavier – a digitized synth, almost identical to his in his studio in Stockholm. He makes it look very easy.
The musical about Donna and her ‘fatherless’ daughter Sophie wasn’t enough with just the old ABBA songs. The film requires a lot of incidental music. What is remarkable is that Benny’s connecting music is also absolutely fantastic. "Listen with wonder and realise that there are several good songs there as well," said Gary Goetzman, one of the film’s producers.
Gary Goetzman is slightly sorry to learn that one of his absolute ABBA favourites, "Knowing Me, Knowing You" does not feature in the film as a song in its own right. He is happy to still hear it as a scene-setting piece though.
Benny Andersson, Gary Goetzman and all the others responsible for different parts of the film have, in just over a month, put together images, dialogue, music, sound effects and created a whole piece. A slightly relaxed, high spirited mood prevails on the premises, which introduces a session in which it is pretty certain that the final cut will at last be approved.
The almost finished film was well received when it was shown for public preview in San Diego and London a few months ago.
Björn and Benny with Judy Craymer outside the Winter Garden in New York
A block from The Brill Building, also on Broadway, is the Winter Garden, where "Mamma Mia!" has played to almost totally sold out houses and is now in its seventh year. In the last week in May, it took US$836,018. On the way to a photo session, Björn Ulvaeus casts a glance up to the theatre’s frontage. He continues to marvel over seeing his name in large letters on Broadway. Benny insists on access to a picture of Judy Craymer in the souvenir shop with "Mamma Mia!" stuff.
“I still have great difficulty in really taking in all of this, the musical, the film, is an expression of an idea that I had twenty years ago”, says Judy Craymer.
She turns fifty this year, and shares along with two other women, book writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd, the responsibility for the musical. Judy Craymer usually rightly describes herself as the "creative dynamo," as a nod to the mother in the musical, Donna, who was the past leader of the pop group "The Dynamos".
Judy Craymer looks completely sincere when she says that she can’t take in the scale of the musical’s success. According to an estimate in a British newspaper, published in 2004, she was then worth four million pounds (over 46 million kroner). There is no reason to believe that she or Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus take in any less now – and considerably more is to come when the film is released. Judy Craymer didn’t know it then, but the history of "Mamma Mia!" began on an ordinary day in 1982 when her boss, author and musical producer Tim Rice called her to go out to Heathrow outside London to meet and collect Björn Ulvaeus. A few days later, Benny Andersson arrived.
The three men had just begun to work on the musical "Chess", Judy Craymer was employed as creative producer when it premiered in London four years later.
“Without the friendship and contact with Björn and Benny that started then, the idea for an ABBA based production may never been realised, " she says. "And maybe also had it not been for Björn and Benny’s initial reluctance. They gave me the challenge I needed."
During her upbringing, Judy Craymer listened to much more Led Zeppelin and Cream than ABBA. She never had "any pictures of Björn and Benny," she says. She has now, she adds. One can not be sure whether she is serious or only joking. Her laughter is the effervescent deep kind that can hide or reveal something at the same time.
One reason that she began to listen to ABBA’s music was simply that Björn and Benny were the most famous people she had met, she says. And she strongly liked what she heard.
"The music is divine. But it was above all the lyrics I settled on." Her fascination led to the idea of producing something – a film, a TV show, a staging with the music of ABBA as a basis. Judy Craymer realised early on that Björn and Benny would never agree to make ‘The story of ABBA’. Instead, she brought up the idea to do an original story based on ABBA songs.
Björn and Benny were not that interested to start with, in particular, not Benny. He was more inclined to write something new. After "Chess" the duo had started work on another musical, which would turn out to be "Kristina från Duvemåla."
Björn Ulvaeus was slightly more positive. “But I really thought that we were done with ABBA songs. When we broke up 1982 – or took a pause, as it was called then – I thought that it was over, that those songs were just what others expect of pop songs. And throughout the 80s, of course, ABBA were completely absent. I thought that it was the end” said Björn.
Benny was even more sceptical about Judy Craymer’s idea: "I am both very afraid and very proud of ABBA’s legacy. We had a fairly exceptional impact during the ten years that the group existed. If we were to have created a musical which was no good, would it not kill us off and make us ask what have we done?"
But in the early 90s things started happening. ABBA’s songs were being played again. The record company Universal, which had bought ABBA’s record company Polar, released “ABBA Gold" in 1992, which has now sold more than twenty seven million copies. During 1994, the Australian films "Muriel’s Wedding" and "The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert " were released, both of which are based on ABBA music. An English band, Erasure, recorded some ABBA songs on a disc, "ABBA-esque", which became a sizeable single’s chart hit.
Even more important for the making of "Mamma Mia!" were two things that happened to Björn Ulvaeus in the middle of the 90s: he saw a musical in London, and Judy Craymer, presented him with a screenplay.
"At the time that my family and I were staying in a hotel in London, my two girls wanted to see "Grease". We went to see it on a summer night, and I had the feeling then as I know it now when I go into a theatre. "Grease” had been around a long time and was seen as a bit dated, but it was after all a good story for families with lots of hits, happy and uplifting. And then I thought that maybe that’s it, perhaps the idea of a musical with ABBA songs could be written and be something." Possibly Björn had already then met Catherine Johnson, he can’t remember.
"Judy had the idea that she would make a musical on existing ABBA songs, without changing the texts. I thought it might be at its hub, a family, happy and uplifting thing. And if anyone could do it, it was Catherine, I thought. In addition, it could be interesting, thought Björn, to see if it really would work, to do a musical ‘backwards’. To begin with the songs and try to find a story instead of vice versa. Benny was still sceptical, but said it was okay if I wanted to get involved with it."
Benny Andersson’s take on the show reversed eventually, but right up to the premiere, he and Judy Craymer had a standing joke. He claimed that he would have a reason to say "what was that I said?" when it transpired it was a fiasco. She claimed that it would also be her reply, when it came to the show being a success. She won.
"Judy wanted to do this and she had no resources. But she did it on the belief that it would be something good, and it became so. I am her very grateful, and I have told her that she actually was right," says Benny.
So why has life been so good for "Mamma Mia!"?
"Basically, I believe it is due to Catherine Johnson, who invented such a good and intelligent story on the basis of the lyrics she had to deal with. She made a choice from everything we wrote and came to this."
Benny continues "There is good quality in the music over an extreme range of fairly large areas, despite the fact that they are just pop songs. They are a bit theatrical in themselves, and above all, they all have a somewhat different character. Catherine Johnson’s first and most important instruction – was to write the story based on the recognition that the ABBA catalogue, which covers around one hundred songs, roughly consists of two parts: the early songs which have a younger, more naive character; and the latter, more mature, more adult in character.
"For example, in "SOS" and "Honey, Honey" the texts are not so grand. They go in one ear and out the other," says Benny. "But the songs like "Knowing Me, Knowing You" and "The Winner Takes It All" are deeper and often deal in relationships and life in general."
"We told Catherine that she could choose freely among all our songs to get the story to hang together. The songs are secondary to the story," says Björn.
The show developed gradually over a kind of collective cooperation, the first between Catherine Johnson, Judy Craymer and Björn, then also with director Phyllida Lloyd, the stage designer and the choreographer.
The musical would be about two generations, a mature woman and her daughter. Eventually there were three men who all could be the father of Donna’s daughter Sophie in the piece; which was eventually located on a Greek island.
It was decided to no longer use the musical’s original title, "Summer Night City."
Björn: "So we started looking for a title among the other songs. "Mamma Mia?" No!, it sounds like someone’s favourite pizzeria, we first thought. But in the end, it became the right choice regardless. It is about a mother, after all." It then became "Mamma Mia!" with the exclamation point.
"Mamma Mia!" Premiered in London on 6 April 1999, twenty-five years to the day of ABBA’s Eurovision victory with "Waterloo". The money Judy Craymer, Björn and Benny, Universal and others had invested in the project, 3.5 million dollars, was recouped in six months. This was the beginning of success all over the world.
"Mamma Mia!" is now one of the most successful works in musical theatre history. It has been staged in 170 cities across the world – using the same direction and staging as in the original production. But each version of the show has been translated into the respective language of the venue, which makes them all a little different in nature.
Back row: Producer Gary Goetzman, Director Phyllida Lloyd, Benny Andersson. Middle row: Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper and Pierce Brosnan and producer Judy Craymer. Front: Meryl Streep and Colin Firth with producers Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks.
Producer Gary Goetzman says that he tried to persuade Judy and the boys "to make a film" five years ago but that they preferred to wait. But when it was finally the right time to make a film, it was natural for Judy Craymer’s and Björn and Benny’s production company Littlestar to contact Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks and Playtone.
And when it came time to casting, someone remembered that Meryl Streep, a few years earlier, had written an adoring letter to the Mamma Mia! Broadway theatre ensemble, after she saw the show together with her daughter and her daughter’s 11 year old friends. Meryl was up dancing in the aisles. The whole experience was "a shot of happiness" she said later in an interview.
No wonder that she quickly accepted when Littlestar called and asked if she would possibly think of playing Donna. "You’re kidding, I am Donna!", she is said to have answered.
"We had seen her sing on film and realised that it would not be any problem for her," says Björn Ulvaeus.
Benny by his very nature has played a more active role in the film’s beginnings than Björn, who was more the driving influence of the two behind the stage show.
"For the musical, we needed only translate the music from our old multitracks. At the theatre, you can then go in and change anything that you are not satisfied with, but with film music, it will always exist and remain unchanged. I did not want to leave it to anyone else, so we’ve all contributed, all again, with the old band in the same studio where we had always been, Metronome Studio, now called Atlantis. Rutger Gunnarsson on bass, Lasse Wellander on guitar, Per Lindvall on drums, and myself on the piano. Björn also played with us, contributing a little acoustic guitar."
Voulez-Vous scene from Mamma Mia! the movie
The ensemble from Cirkus in Stockholm 2005 was called in to do all the backing vocals. The actors’ solos were all recorded in London, along with a large orchestra. All this was combined with a portion of live recordings from the filming. Benny beams with joy and enthusiasm when he tal