Benny and Björn in UK newspaper

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the two Bs from Abba, are talking football, unimpressed by Sweden’s performance in a friendly last week against Wales in Swansea, even though their national team won 1-0.

“We weren’t very good,” says Benny, with typically Swedish deadpannery. “But they were worse.”

Thanks to the all-conquering musical Mamma Mia!, Benny and Bjorn – now well into their sixties – are probably as well known today as they were in Abba’s Seventies heyday. But they are here in the Albert Hall cafe to talk about a very different musical of theirs – Kristina, which premiered in Sweden in 1995 and has now, rather belatedly, been translated for English-speaking audiences.

Famous lyricist Herbert Kretzmer, who co-wrote Les Miserables, the musical epic with which Kristina shares obvious parallels, was drafted in to give it Broadway polish. Following a two-night run in Carnegie Hall last summer — recorded for a forthcoming two-CD set — the opus gets its UK premiere at a one-off concert performance at the Albert Hall next month. In any language, it’s as far removed from the boys’ previous work as is imaginable.

To give its original, full title, Kristina från Duvemåla (Kristina from Duvemala), it is an ambitious adaption of The Emigrants, a quadrilogy of historical novels by Vilhelm Moberg, Sweden’s most revered writer, and follows the misadventures of a poor Swedish family as it attempts to make a new life in Minnesota.

Unlike the Seventies film version of the Moberg novels, which starred Max von Sydow as the head of the family, Benny and Björn’s musical puts Kristina, a level-headed and deeply religious matriarch, centre stage. The privations and tribulations she experiences in seeking a better life for her family — from lice infestations on the transatlantic sea voyage to multiple miscarriages — lead ultimately to her questioning God’s existence. Very Swedish.

With its range of themes (which include prostitution, gold rush fever and — in a lighter song — a bilingual fart gag), as well as its almost Wagnerian length (some four hours in its original format), Benny considers it more than your average West End musical. “I think of it as opera,” he says, unsniffily.

Certainly, it is scored almost entirely for orchestra with an enormous chorus, although it also contains the occasional electric guitar, the odd Nordic folk number, and some very “Benny” piano riffs that give it more than a hint of “popera”. The English version is, thankfully, substantially trimmed. “But now down to three and a half hours, it’s almost too short, if you ask me,” says Benny.

Rather than working together at the piano, as they did when knocking out Abba hits, Benny and Björn worked alone when writing their contributions to Kristina — the score and the lyrics, respectively — which goes some way to explain why it took the pair five years to finish.

“A lot of the material was also written in rehearsal,” admits Björn, who needed the deadline of a opening night to compress the four novels into a show. “With Abba, we didn’t have anyone breathing down our necks. For this, people were rehearsing while I was writing the last lyrics. That was a kind of cliffhanger.”

Despite the downbeat subject, Kristina is swept along by numerous irresistible showstoppers. Upon hearing the musical for the first time, Andrew Lloyd Webber is reported to have said that he’d wished he’d written it.

“You can’t really compare Abba and Kristina,” says Benny. “They’re very different, in a compositional and emotional sense. But I’m easily as proud of it as of Abba.”

There was a strong personal reason to present it to English-speaking audiences. “We did it in English,” says Benny, “just to have an opportunity to say: ‘So there’s Mamma Mia down the road, on Broadway and in the West End, and this here is Kristina and there’s no resemblance, really, apart from it’s the same guys behind it. And that feels good.”

Abba were never big in America — they only ever had one Billboard number one, with Dancing Queen, and the widely panned Broadway production of Chess in 1988 went down as one of Benny and Bjorn’s most notable failures. But thanks to Mamma Mia!, that has changed. Benny now says with a smile: “I think we’ve finally cracked the States.” If proof were needed, the band will be inaugurated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York later this month.

“Isn’t that amazing?” says Benny. “I don’t know what it means exactly, I’m just flattered. We’re considered alongside Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney, so it’s not bad. We’re the only non-English or American act to have made it in. Ever. But we were never rock and roll. Kristina at the Albert Hall is light years away from rock and roll.”

‘Kristina’ will be performed at the Albert Hall, London SW7 (0845 401 5045), on Apr 14. Details: www.kristinathemusical.com. The soundtrack will be released by Decca on Apr 12.

Interview by Paul Clements.

Benny and Björn on Kristina

15 Replies to “Benny and Björn in UK newspaper”

  1. What a great interview, much more relaxed and personal than most reporters usually manage to achieve. Whilst linking ABBA, Mamma Mia!, Chess and of course the RRHOF, it keeps its main focus on promoting Kristina, and what a good job it did there too. If I didnt have a ticket already I’d be rushing for the phone!
    PS – I’m with Benny, whilst I admit the original format did need some "tidying up", I would really hate to see it cut any further.

  2. Personally, I am finding the wait for the CDs almost unbearable. I admit to having a little trepidation about how the recording will match up with the original. Won’t be long now, though.

    As an aside, there is a plugin on that Telegraph web page that allows you to select from some Abba videos. There is one there that I don’t remember seeing before – When All is Said and Done but also the Spanish version, No Hay A Quien Culpar, which I have never heard at all. It’s superb and I wonder why sometimes the foreign versions sound better to me that the English! I think it’s from the Spanish version of ‘Abba Gold’

    Lee

  3. I’m with you Lee – the wait is unbearable!

    I find myself humming (badly) some tune for Kristina just about every day. Can’t wait for the RAH event either, got really great seats, 2nd row of the stalls about 2oft from the stage. I shall have to restrain myself from dashing up there and crying all over the amazing Ms Sjoholm! And if B&B end up on the stage, well, there’s no knowing what I might do!

    We icethesiters should have some way of recognising each other on the night….

    Phil

  4. "Felicidad" (Happy New Year) is also there. Well worth a watch if you haven’t seen them before.

    Phil

  5. I’m the Telegraph journalist who wrote the piece, so thanks for the kind comments so far. Glad you like the Abba video widget too! http://bit.ly/bzV7MZ

    It was a great privilege ? and a lifetime?s ambition – to meet Benny and Björn last week. Given they were in rehearsals at the Royal Albert Hall and had a plane to catch, they were generous with their time. Wish I?d had more space in the paper for some of the other topics we talked about (how Kristina came together, Voulez-Vous 30th, writing more for Helen, etc).

    Lucky for me, I had a chance to hear some of the tracks from the Carnegie Hall CD. To answer Lee’s question, I doubt you?ll be disappointed by much.

    Except that is ? sadly (as it?s my favourite) – You Have To Be There, which is more ponderous than the Swedish version. Helen really goes to town on the vocal, as you’d expect, but some of the tenderness of the original is lost beneath some anguished growls (!). If I?m being overly critical, the orchestra and band aren?t quite together in the intro, either. But you can?t keep a beautiful song down.

    Anyone else heard excerpts?

  6. Paul, thanks for the article. You lucky bugger! I’ve got a couple of journalist friends like you who as ABBA fans have been lucky enough to meet the men (or the women) on a professional basis like this. Unlike the rest of us who have to make do with fumbling meetings at public events or in the street.

    Thanks for this and your other ABBA articles 🙂

  7. Great article, one of the more thoughtful pieces I have read in awhile.

    For RAH, Dress Circle, the theatre shop in London, had a full window display advertising the Kristina concert. Sadly someone called Andrew LLoyd Weber has a new show opening which has replaced it 🙂

    Countdown to April!

    Jason

  8. @Paul Clements
    I was there for both nights in New York and have been priviledged enough to hear several previews of the forthcoming cd. Whilst of course I think it is fantastic, and cannot wait for 12/04, I have to admit that my heart is and I believe always will be with the original swedish version.
    If you have the opportunity, interview Kevin Oderkirk. He is totally convincing in the role of Robert and has the most amazing voice , his rendition of "Gold Can Turn To Sand" is the best I’ve ever heard and I believe I have heard them all!

  9. Thanks Anne – I’ll try and track him down 🙂

    Did you feel the same about You Have To Be There in the Carnegie Hall show being a bit ponderous in parts?

    PS: for anyone who’s interested, there’s a pic of me with Benny and Bjorn on my Facebook page. I’m the one grinning wildly. Strangely, they look like they could be my gay dads… take a look!

  10. The journalist wrote, "Abba were never big in America"

    Well…
    Contrary to a widespread notion, ABBA did achieve a major success in the United States.

    During their active career, from 1974 to 1982, FOURTEEN of their singles reached Top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and on Cashbox singles chart, ten of them reached Top 20 and four of them placed in Top 10 on both charts, with "Dancing Queen" peaking at No.1 also on both charts.

    The group also had TWELVE Top 20 singles on Billboard Adult Contemporary chart with two of them, Fernando and The Winner Takes It All, reaching No.1. "Lay All Your Love On Me" was ABBA’s FOURTH No.1 single on Billboard charts topping its Hot Dance Club Play chart.

    NINE ABBA albums made its way into the Top 100 on Billboard 200 album chart with seven of them getting into the Top 50 and four reaching Top 20.

    Yes, ABBA had a comparatively smaller success in the US, but in ABBA’s active days the US record market was as big as the rest of the world’s, so ABBA had a much stiffer competition there. Therefore, to claim that they were not big there is simply misleading and inaccurate.

  11. @ Paul
    I do understand what you mean about the cd, but I guess its a side effect of a live recording. Although NY was a concert version, Helen did not just stand there and sing. She gave a strong, powerful and totally believable character performance. With desperation in her eyes, hands pleading and voice anguished, through the song she told the story. In Carnegie Hall the voice matched the visuals, but of course on the cd we only get the voice.

  12. @Paul Clements
    Even if there was not space in the Telegraph – could you tell us what Benny or Björn said about writing more for Helen??

  13. When Bjorn nipped to the loo, I asked Benny about Helen, and he sounded very paternal as far as her career is concerned. After raving about her on Story of a Heart and in Kristina, he admitted that "she should do more pop and rock stuff".

    When I asked if he’d ever thought of writing an akbum for her, he said: "She knows that if she wants me to work with her, I?ll do that ? like that [click of fingers]. We would *both* write for her again. Absolutely."

    What do we think of a Helen Sjoholm album written (produced?) by Benny and Bjorn? *Swoons*…

  14. "What do we think of a Helen Sjoholm album written (produced?) by Benny and Bjorn?"
    That would be a dream come true!!! I want more of them together than just a few songs on the BAO albums every 3-4 years. I want a whoooooole album!

  15. Re new Kristina CDs: I am sure they will be wonderful. The beauty of our current situation is that we still have the original Swedish version too. So, if I want to listen to the ‘full’ Battery Park, I can still do so. Similarly with the different versions of Chess. I love Chess pa Svenska for various reasons and go to it often for a different ‘experience’.

    re Helen: well she is wonderful and an album for her written by B&B (as they did for Josefin Nilsson) would be great. At the same time I *love* those BAO/BAB albums. Tommy’s pretty good too (!!) and there are duets that work very well (‘The Stars’ for example). Story of a Heart itself is a band effort. Listening to those albums you get a real feeling for their sheer joy of music-making and having fun.

    Lee

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