When Judy Craymer first approached Bjorn Ulvaeus about taking his classic compositions and turning them into a stage musical, the ABBA co-founder balked.
Concerned the show would be a tell-all about the famed Swedish group – which broke up in 1982 – Ulvaeus and his long-time songwriting collaborator Benny Andersson only agreed to Craymer’s proposal once she assured them the production would be a totally original musical. After countless rewrites of the script (by Catherine Johnson) the show was finally ready to go, and debuted to wide acclaim April 6, 1999 at the prestigious Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End.
In a phone call from his home in Stockholm, Ulvaeus admits he was a quivering mass of nerves that night, since he was unsure an audience would appreciate the light-hearted tale of a single mom and her daughter seeking to find the identity of her real dad. He worried for naught. Mamma Mia! has been seen by over 40 million people worldwide, and has premiered in more cities faster than any other musical in history – and this week, the musical returns to Toronto for a five-week run.
The 65-year-old Swede talked to The Globe about the show’s lasting appeal, his friendship with the ABBA band members (including ex-wife, Agnetha Faltskog), his elation when Meryl Streep accepted the lead in the movie, and his new obsession, his three grandchildren (including one babbling away in the background).
So how did the musical actually come about?
Judy approached me at the end of the eighties, but with an idea for a TV program. It wasn’t a musical at all. That didn’t go anywhere. Then Judy introduced me to Catherine Johnson, who is dark, funny, clever and witty – and I thought perfect to write a musical. Benny and I had ground rules: There could be no changes to the lyrics or the music. And I made it clear that if at any time I felt this wasn’t good enough, or that it would hurt the catalogue of songs or the group in any way, I’d pull the plug.
But it turned out to be great fun. The fact that this little show – which we all thought would have a limited run – is where it is now, well, it’s quite incredible.
The London production is now in its 11th year. On Broadway, its ninth. And it’s returning to Toronto, where it’s already grossed over $170-million and been seen by more than three million people. What is Mamma Mia!’s appeal?
The timing was right. Most shows during the ‘80s were quite sombre, such as Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera. This was light and funny, bright and happy. Plus the audiences knew all the songs. But mostly I think it’s because of the story. I’ve heard critics who have dismissed Mamma Mia! as simplistic. But that’s stupid, because it’s a great story for these songs.
Describe opening night in London.
The first time we saw it with an audience was the preview, and none of us knew what to expect. We had done so many interviews, explaining this was not a show about ABBA. But I bet half the audience still thought that’s what it was. I was watching people in the crowd and at first they didn’t know what the hell to make of it. You could see the puzzlement and I was very worried. Then after about five or 10 minutes, I could see people starting to smile. And I’ll never forget that moment, because it was such a relief. You and Benny had some influence on the actors chosen for the feature film.
Did you think Meryl Streep would take the bait?
We knew she liked it because she had written us a long letter saying how much she loved [the stage version]. Originally, the three female dynamos were going to be younger, like the musical. Then someone came up with the brilliant idea of making them older. And the dream, then, of course, was Meryl. We knew she could sing. So we asked her. And she said yes, just like that. It was very daring of her. And we were over the moon. Pierce Brosnan has been roasted for his vocals.
Do you think that is deserved?
Benny and I both think Pierce has a warm, interesting voice. Very folky. We actually liked his voice. I don’t quite understand it when people say he’s an awful singer. We don’t think he is.
Do you still see the rest of your band?
Well, Benny and I are the best of friends so we see each other at least once a week. Netta [Fältskog] and I have three grandchildren together, so I also see her quite a lot at birthdays, Christmas, etc. Frida [Anni-Frid Lyngstad] travels to Stockholm quite often, and we get together. So we’re all still good friends. When the band split, it was because we felt there wasn’t the same energy any more.
Is there any truth to talk of a reunion?
None. There are always rumours about that.
Personal things, definitely, which I wouldn’t like to mention. When it comes to my career in the entertainment business, no. I’ve been amazingly lucky. After ABBA split, I thought we’d be finished. To be here, now – I still ask myself, how did this happen? My life is full. My grandkids are all here now, swarming around me. And that one making the noise, he’s the second youngest – and he’s got a good set of lungs.
Mamma Mia! returns to Toronto’s Princess of Wales theatre April 28 and runs until June 27.
Thank you to Paul Russell.