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.