Dancing in the aisles is not only permitted but encouraged at the Winter Garden Theatre during the encore of Mamma Mia!, the musical phenomenon inspired by the songs of the Swedish pop group ABBA. In London, Toronto, Australia and various cities throughout the country, members of the audience routinely spill into the aisles during the mini-concert that follows the show and, like ABBA's "Dancing Queen," dance and jive and have the time of their lives.
People have been dancing to ABBA for more than 25 years, ever since the group catapulted to fame in 1974 by winning the Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England. They sang "Waterloo," the song took off, and ABBA became an international sensation. The group comprised of Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who wrote the songs, and their then-wives Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the name ABBA is taken from the initials of their first names)-was together for only eight years. Yet to date they have sold over 350 million recordings worldwide, making them one of the most successful pop bands of all time.
After ABBA broke up, Andersson and Ulvaeus went on to write the musical Chess with Tim Rice, which opened in the West End in 1986. The executive producer of the London production was Judy Craymer, and it wasn't long before she began thinking about putting together a musical filled with existing ABBA songs. "This was about 10 or 12 years ago," says Ulvaeus, a co-producer of Mamma Mia!. "I told her to go ahead if she could find a good writer and a good story. She tried a couple of writers, but nothing came of it."
Craymer persevered, and five years ago she invited award-winning British playwright Catherine Johnson to have a go at it. "At about the same time, I went with my family to see Grease in London," says Ulvaeus. "And it struck me that a musical based on ABBA songs could be like Grease. I was inspired by the fact that you have a lot of uplifting pop songs and a good story, and it's family entertainment. Cathy had our whole catalogue to choose from, and she found that in the early part of our career, the lyrics sounded more teenagelike. Later on, they were much more mature. From that came the idea that the story could be about two generations of women."
Mamma Mia!, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, ultimately became the story of Donna, single mother and former member of a girl group, and her daughter Sophie. On the eve of her wedding, Sophie is determined to discover the identity of her father. Without Donna's knowledge, she invites three of her mother's former flames to attend her wedding ceremony. "I call it the musical we never knew we'd written," says Ulvaeus. "The songs fit so well, as if they'd actually been written for the show. And that's what we wanted." The audience gets what it wants, too: an ABBA hit parade of 22 numbers, including "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance on Me," "Money, Money, Money," "Super Trouper," "The Name of the Game" and "Dancing Queen." The group's original arrangements are played by a nine-piece band.
Ulvaeus and Andersson met in the early sixties, when each was performing with and writing for other groups. By the end of the decade, they were writing together on a regular basis, mostly for other people. "We met the girls and fell in love at the end of the sixties," says Ulvaeus. "Both girls happened to be singers. They continued to pursue their own careers, and Benny and I pursued ours. We hadn't been looking to form a band, but the four of us were together socially all the time for years, and we used to sing together in private. After about two or three years of this, we said, 'We have such a good sound, why not try to put a record together?'"
But producers weren't at all eager to sign a Swedish pop band. "We sent tapes around to different record companies in England and America, and I bet they threw them in the wastebasket," says Ulvaeus. "The only chance we had to break out of Sweden was being in the Song Contest in Brighton." What followed were platinum albums, sell-out concert tours and a run of top-ten singles on the European pop charts surpassed only by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Madonna.
By 1983 both couples were divorced, and they decided that it was time to break up ABBA as well. "We weren't having so much fun in the studio anymore," says Ulvaeus. "We no longer had that chemistry. It wasn't because of the divorces, because we'd made some of our best stuff after the divorces, like 'Winner Takes It All.' It's just that creatively something was lacking. Most groups have a creative span of not more than seven years. We were at a point where we said, 'Let's take a break.' And we're still on that break."
But their popularity continues to soar. Two 1994 movies-Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert brought their music to a new generation. Tribute bands, which began springing up even earlier, seem to have become a cottage industry. New artists are covering ABBA songs. And Mamma Mia! is a hit on three continents.
As ABBA fans might say, "Mamma mia, how can we resist you!"