On Oct. 18, the day the New York production of Mamma Mia! celebrated its fifth anniversary on Broadway at the Cadillac Winter Garden Theatre, co-creator Björn Ulvaeus spoke with Playbill.com about the show's success and his forthcoming projects.
Ulvaeus said he never expected Mamma Mia! — which employs the songs he wrote with Benny Andersson for ABBA — to become an international hit. In fact, after his experiences with Chess, which played a brief Broadway run after a hit London production, he was reticent about bringing Mamma Mia! to New York. "I was scared of Broadway," he says, "[but] I understood that [Mamma Mia! was] really something big and it had potential. What got to me was [the thought], 'Why on earth if it works here [in London], why would it not work elsewhere where people understand English?'
"But I said, 'Absolutely not — we're not going to Broadway.' So, where else is there? Well, there is Toronto, and that was a very good move I think. We went to Toronto — because Canada is somewhere in between America and Europe — and it worked so well. We thought we'd be there for half a year and then send that production on tour. Of course, people didn't want it to leave, so instead we created a tour for the American market, slowly to come in to Broadway, building a reputation. The reputation was built in London, Toronto, and then our tour went to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and by the time we came to Broadway . . . no critic in the world could have killed us."
Although New York critics were unkind to Chess — the pop-rock musical that features lyrics by Tim Rice — Ulvaeus said he would now consider another Broadway run. "I would actually love to [bring it back to New York]. Every time I come here, people talk about 'Chess, Chess, Chess.' Benny and Tim and I haven't had a go at it for a long time now, so maybe it's time again. I spoke to Tim about another matter three or four days ago, and we said that maybe we should spend two or three days [working on Chess] and see what would happen." Ulvaeus is also excited about his latest musical with Andersson, Kristina, which is based on a series of Swedish novels by Vilhelm Moberg. "It's about immigrants going from the south of Sweden in the 1850s to America," Ulvaeus explained. "It's about their lives. It's an epic saga really. We did that in Sweden successfully — ran for about three years in various cities. . . . And then we wanted to translate it [into English] because we thought it was American history as well. It's really more American history than Swedish. Herbert Kretzmer did [the translation] with me, and we did a workshop here in New York in March to find out what people didn't understand, what the weaknesses were and what it would be like to do it in English. And, we really learned a lot from that. So, right now we're working on the script again."
And, Ulvaeus added, "We're also in the process of making a film of Mamma Mia!. No casting yet, but we hope to be able to start shooting next year, September or October. We're going to meet next week with [director] Phyllida Lloyd, [writer] Catherine Johnson, Benny and me, to talk about the [film]."
"Mamma Mia!" will mark the first feature-film debut for Lloyd, who directed the numerous stage versions of the hit musical. "She's never done a film before," said Ulvaeus, "but she's going to make a wonderful film, I'm sure."
Mamma Mia! features music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, a book by Catherine Johnson, direction by Phyllida Lloyd and choreography by Anthony Van Laast. The musical plays the Winter Garden Theatre, which is located in New York City at 1634 Broadway.