Benny and Björn’s Swedish musical Kristina från Duvemåla will be opening in Helsinki, Finland next year. The premiere is on 29 February at the Swedish National Theatre.
It will be the first time that the musical has been performed outside of Sweden other than as a concert version. It will not be performed in Finnish however, but in Swedish.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be! Finland is officially a bilingual country in accordance with its constitution and both Finnish and Swedish are Finland’s national languages.
It therefore follows that Finland should have a Swedish Theatre company performing works in Swedish by Swedish artists, composers and musicians.
The Swedish National Theatre (S.N.T) is one of six professional theatres in Finland to serve the Swedish speaking population and is considered to be the Swedish national stage.
Staging Kristina från Duvemåla in Finland makes even more sense when you take into consideration that during 150 years of Finnish autonomy and independence, over 400,000 Finns undertook the grueling emigration to North America.
Step forward Benny and Björn to touch more than a few hearts with their musical version of Vilhelm Moberg’s classic Swedish novel series The Emigrants, the books which captured so poignantly the struggles and obstacles on the road to a new life in a far-off land.
Between opening in Malmö in 1995 and finishing its run in Stockholm in 1999, more than a million Swedes saw Kristina. It cemented Benny and Björn’s place at the pinnacle of Sweden’s national musical folklore – if their work with ABBA hadn’t done that already.
It also catapulted the careers of its stars to new heights. Anders Ekborg who originally played Karl Oskar, Peter Jöback who played Robert and of course Helen Sjöholm, the original Kristina became household names in Sweden almost overnight as a result of being the stars of Benny and Björn’s second musical. Each of them has gone on to have very successful careers in their homeland.
So, what lies in store for the young principal performers in Helsinki? Great opportunities, I shouldn’t wonder – and an awful lot of hard work. So who are the chosen ones?
Two performers from Finland and two from Sweden were eventually chosen from over 600 auditionees.
Maria Ylipää from Helsinki, who has most recently played Elpheba in the musical Wicked in Helsinki was the one amongst the many hopeful Kristinas to land the part. Upon hearing that she was successful in getting the title role in Benny and Björn’s theatrical masterpiece, Maria said that she was “incredibly surprised”.
She played a part in Swedish in 2005 but it was nowhere near as big a part as Kristina. It also wasn’t half as serious or as dramatic. “It will be fantastic to play the main part”, she says, adding that she will of course “do her very best” with this amazing opportunity she has earned herself.
Maria added: “Kristina från Duvemåla is a relatively new musical for me. The first time I listened to the whole album was before the audition process. It is beautiful and emotional music, and I wept both when I listened to it and when I sang it. It is a good sign – I have to cry to the music before I sing it before others.”
When it came to the auditions Maria had a lot to think about. A major leading role in combination with family life and a three-year-old son meant that she did not have time to be nervous. She also did not have too high an expectation of herself, and thinks that is why it went so well.
She added: “Benny, Björn and Lars are all quite wonderful. Although they are big stars, they each have their feet on the ground. I am looking forward to working with them and the whole team. It is interesting to again get to dive into a totally new world with new people. I am waiting to get acquainted with Kristina and create my own version of her.”
“She is a lovely woman – soft, warm, hopeful, strong and mother of seven children. She does not thrive in America, but she has a faith that whilst shaken at times is strong. It will be fun to do this kind of ‘real’ role after playing a witch, flying around in the air and with green paint on my face!”
As for singing and reciting dialogue in Swedish, she say: “It feels wonderful to sing in Swedish! It is easier to sing in Swedish than in Finnish…and of course I want to learn to speak better Swedish. When I talk you can hear that Swedish is not my native language. But when I sing it is not so apparent.
Despite that, I have to practice a bit on my Swedish before rehearsals and plan to talk a lot with all my Finnish-Swedish friends and continue reading Hufvudstadsbladet (the highest-circulation Swedish-language newspaper in Finland)!”
As to the question of whether there are any noticeable differences between the Finnish and Finnish-Swedish theatre worlds, Maria says that there are no major differences, “the theatre is the theatre.” But she does add that the Swedes can be more mischievous and playful behind the scenes, whereas the Finns are somewhat more earnest.
Ahead of Kristina opening and after Wicked, Maria plans to take the summer of 2011 off and whilst away from work will read Vilhelm Moberg’s novels. In the autumn there is some film and television work lined up but no more theatre. She is taking a complete break from the theatrical world until the rehearsals for Kristina från Duvemåla begin, so that she can give her everything when the time comes.
“It is important to prepare before taking on such a big role. I feel a great responsibility in playing the role of Kristina and want to really be ready.”
Karl Oskar will be played by Robert Noack, originally from Norrköpping but now living in Malmö. It was Robert’s girlfriend, who is also an actor, who discovered that there were open auditions for Kristina från Duvemåla. She suggested Robert go along and see what happened. A few weeks after the first audition Robert received an email about a second round.
“I initially attended the auditions intending to try out for the character of Robert. But the second time I sang, Benny asked me if I could sing in a higher key”. Benny then went on to ask him to sing “some Karl Oskar songs” and sent him home with the music notation for Vildgras and Här har du mig igen.
After a third audition, for Karl Oskar from the start this time, at Benny’s Rival hotel and a follow-up at a theatre on Drottningsgatan where he sung with Maria Ylipää, he eventually discovered that he got the part.
But he had to keep quiet about it from 9 December 2010 until 17 February 2011. It was a long time to keep such amazing news to himself, especially because everyone he knew kept asking how the auditions had gone.
“I wanted to tell everyone right away, I was so amazingly happy!” he says.
A Swede, Oskar Nilsson from Stockholm will play Karl Oskar’s brother, the dreamer Robert. He is distinct among the successful auditionees in having a background that is far more rooted in pop music than music for the stage.
He is the singer in the Swedish band Concept Store and has recorded demos as a backing vocalist in the Swedish competition to select an entry for the Eurovision Song Contest.
“Attending Kristina auditions was my first real audition for a role in a musical and I was very nervous for hours beforehand. I just tried to focus, release the inner tension and let it go as it goes.
“I didn’t think it was true at first that I had been successful. I was laid up at home with a fever on the day I was told that Benny and Björn had chosen me for the part of Robert and I was a bit unsure whether it was a dream or the real world! Several days later, it was still a little unreal.”
He adds that he hopes for many great things from playing a main part in Kristina and that to be included in this amazing production and working with so many incredible professional people feels still too good to be true.
On the character of Robert, Oskar says he can see some similarities with himself: “Robert wants to experience and achieve as much as possible in life, and sometimes that results in him being naive. He is a dreamer and I can relate to that. I also go around and dream about everything. The fact that I recognise myself in him helps bring the person in the pages of a book to life”.
Of interest is the fact that Oskar has a cousin who is a dancer and who was directed by Lars Rudolfsson in CHESS when it ran at Stockholm’s Cirkus. He ended up seeing her three times in the show.
Birthe Wingren from Porvoo, around 50 km from Helsinki, will play Ulrika. She has a solid and successful theatrical career behind her. Most recently, she could be seen playing Sally Bowles in the musical Chicago in Helsinki. Her past productions include Evita, My Fair Lady, West Side Story and Les Misérables.
She freely admits that one of the reasons for attending the Helsinki auditions was that she “wanted to meet Benny and Björn” and to have a chance to sing for them. “It was especially fun to meet with Björn and Benny. I have grown up with ABBA, so it was a little nostalgic. They were very friendly and encouraging at the auditions.”
Birthe also went through four rounds of auditions before she learned that she got the role. She knew the plot of the musical from reading Vilhelm Moberg’s books but she was still not overly familiar with the musical.
Now that she understands more about the role of Ulrika in Kristina från Duvemåla, Birthe has this to say about her character:
“To go to America is certainly a big step for someone in Ulrika’s position, and especially for her status within the community. Ultimately, she is not a tragic figure, but a strong person and after time, she and Kristina become best friends, something that never would have happened in Sweden.”
So, another era awaits Kristina från Duvemåla – a musical that many of us have grown very familiar with in the 17 years or so since it first emerged. However, in recent interviews, Benny and Björn have said that the Helsinki production will be scaled back somewhat from the Swedish production. There will be a smaller cast of supporting players and a smaller orchestra.
This will make the show easier to stage in future and the hope is that the Baltic States and Russia may look to stage the production. A licensing agreement to stage the show in their respective languages is already in place in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Russia. There will certainly be a lot of eyes on Helsinki next year to see if Kristina as a theatrical production will travel well.
It will certainly travel with the blessing of its creators. As Benny told the Finnish press recently “We are very proud of this. We don’t want to give this musical to anyone else or to tell someone that they can do what they like with it.”
With original Kristina från Duvemåla director Lars Rudolfsson on board, Benny and Björn overseeing the auditions and fully-involved throughout the creative process, original set designer Robin Wagner already working on the scenery and the majority of the sumptuous music and lyrical story telling intact, Kristina in Helsinki may ultimately be a smaller affair but it is still destined for the original’s big success.