IT’S enough to fill even the most confident West End star with a genuine sense of fear.
Singing an Abba song standing on the top of a fountain as an acrobat dangles perilously above performing tricks on a trapeze, all while Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson look on intently just two metres away.
I’m with one half of the world’s most iconic pop act at the dress rehearsal of the latest creation to keep ABBA a pop culture force for decades to come.
Mamma Mia! The Party has seen a giant three-storey former nightclub within London’s O2 Arena converted into the now famous Greek Island taverna from the blockbuster film.
The truly immersive experience sees punters live like they’re in the movie — eating Mediterranean food as a comedic love story penned by Great British Bake Off host Sandi Toksvig is told using over 20 of ABBA’s most famous hits from Dancing Queen to Knowing Me, Knowing You.
And the massive scale of the production shows that 37 years since the Swedish quartet broke up, the commercial power of ABBA is stronger than ever.
Björn is the public face of the band today and has spent the past few months jetting between Stockholm and London to ensure every aspect of the production is up to ABBA’s gold standard.
At 74, he is as trim, energetic and as in control as ever — and he’s prepared to get his hands dirty. In fact, with a lanyard around his neck, he giggles telling me someone had earlier thought he was a maintenance worker.
‘THEY SAID ABBA WAS PLASTIC – IT HURT’
With just two hours before the final dress rehearsal, he takes me on a tour of the venue before sitting down to open up about the fascinating relationship the four ABBA members have today.
Famously, Björn was married to Agnetha Fältskog, while Benny Andersson wed Anni-Frid Lyngstad. But both relationships ended over the course of the final two years of the band’s stratospheric career.
Now, Björn concedes, they provide evidence of “two former married couples getting along very well”.
But they would never have had the chance if the band hadn’t come out of a late Eighties slump where the music industry and public turned against their brand of pop. Björn recalls: “I think that hurt a bit — that they said it was plastic, it was shallow. It was distinctly uncool with ABBA — we were out. I’ve told you this before, I thought it was finished.
“It would have been different if we had been forgotten — then we probably wouldn’t have seen each other ever again.”
I believe the reason ABBA has remained so enduring is because they quit at the absolute peak of their pop powers.
Whether the couples had stayed married or not, Björn is adamant they still would have split when they did. He insists: “We could never have just gone on with ABBA having one hit every five years or so. No! It was never in the cards.”
The Nineties ABBA revival was “unimaginable” to the band. Abba-esque, an Erasure EP of four of ABBA’s best know hits, went to No1 on the UK singles chart and the cult Australia film Muriel’s Wedding made the group cool again.
While Björn and 72-year-old Benny had stayed as close as “brothers”, they soon developed a “really solid” working relationship with their ex-wives.
Björn explains: “I guess with age comes an approach to the whole thing which makes you very humble and which strengthens the bonds between you. And we want to try new things and that’s very rare.”
For three decades, ABBA insisted they would never reunite, either on stage or in the studio.
But to fans’ delight, that changed last year, with the announcement they had secretly recorded two new songs that will be used to launch a new tour using avatars — called the Abbatars, of course — of the band at their peak.
That experience has made the quartet closer than they have been since their respective divorces as they heard each other sing together for the first time at a studio in Stockholm without any cameras present.
Björn says of that moment: “Coming together like that, for me at least, strengthens and solidifies and confirms our bond.
“And especially when the ladies went into the studio and stood by their mics and started singing, then, oh, it’s that sound — the quality of the two ladies when they sing.”
It’s special to see Björn go into a little dreamlike state as he re-lives that moment — which even the most ardent ABBA supporter never thought would happen.
The two new songs will now be launched next year at some point because the technology on the Abbatars is taking longer than expected to perfect.
‘AGNETHA AND FRIDA THINK IT’S GREAT’
But in the meantime all four members are also in constant contact over the London opening of Mamma Mia! The Party later this month. Björn says of Agnetha, 69, and Frida, 73: “They are very much involved and they think this is great. They love it. Technically it is very advanced and complicated.”
I’ve seen the first incarnation of the show in Stockholm, but the superior sound and video production here takes it to another level.
Björn adds: “My aim was always to do it in the UK. Somehow in this business you’re never quite seen unless you’re doing it in London or New York.”
Some eyebrows have been raised about the high price of tickets — which start at £150 — but critics are forgetting this is a first-of-a-kind experience in the UK.
The entry includes a four-course meal, three-act show and then an amazing nightclub, complete with raised dance platforms, where you don’t need to leave until 1am.
“It’s all wrapped into the one,” Björn explains. “Usually when you go to the theatre you rush a pre-dinner and then hurry to the theatre.”
While Sandi’s script provides laugh-out-loud UK-specific jokes about everything from Brexit to PPI Insurance, Björn believes the success of the show will be down to the need for true escapism in the midst of uncertain political times.
“It’s the ideal place to spend time and forget about the world outside, which we need right now.”
As for Björn, the idea of slowing down is not on the cards.
He continues to write music for a series of projects, including ABBA, and even tweaked some of their famous songs for this production. He says: “It’s usually for one artist or another — I have friends I still write for in Sweden and for Benny’s band (Benny Anderssons Orkester was formed in 2001), of course — and these new ABBA songs.
“Introducing ABBA to a new generation is a spin-off — even children and young adults have been introduced through the Mamma Mia world.
“But I write like how Benny and I always wrote ABBA songs, with the intention to write the best song ever, but not always succeeding.”
- Mamma Mia! The Party is booking through to February 2020 mammamiatheparty.co.uk
Sandi's script is perfect
WHEN Björn decided he wanted to translate the story of Mamma Mia! The Party for a British audience, he knew immediately who he had to hire.
As Sandi Toksvig comes to join us, he recalls: “My first thought was, ‘To work with Sandi would be a dream.’ And you said yes immediately.”
Sandi nods in agreement then adds: “I don’t want to blow smoke up your ar*e but you are extraordinary.
“I will say to Björn, ‘Oh, I don’t think this is quite working,’ and in two minutes he has changed the lyrics so it works for the script. It’s like a machine.”
Having watched the dress rehearsal, I can confirm Sandi’s script is pitch perfect – with some jokes even getting loud rounds of applause.
Sandi says of her changes: “It’s a few cultural things that work well in Sweden but would not work well here. Swedes have a slightly more relaxed attitude to some things that we might find complicated.
“It’s been a team thing – we’ve laughed and laughed.”
Björn adds: “Yes, teamwork. I was saying to Sandi yesterday one of my best collaborations is between the two of us, really. It’s a dream for me.”
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