Mamma Mia! Theatre Review

Mamma Mia!' is a big sparkly musical based on ABBA's sunny, multi-layered pop tracks. The story of four popular Swedish musicians becoming a supergroup is equally big, sparkly and sunny, right up until the climax - but there's no happy ending.

Feature by Julie Balazs | 16 Apr 2006

The most important thing to happen in the world, ever, is the Eurovision Song Contest. True, most of the year it isn't even a blip on the radar, and too many of the songs performed are only 'music' in the very loosest sense of the word (recall Jemini, the UK's 2003 entrant). But without Eurovision we wouldn't have ABBA, without ABBA we wouldn't have the songs of ABBA and without the songs of ABBA we wouldn't have 'Mamma Mia!'

When 'Mamma Mia!' opened in London in 1999, no one had any idea how it would be received. Audience reactions to big sparkly musicals with feeble plots are notoriously unpredictable – why should 'CATS', with its raucous catcalls, have succeeded where 'Carrie', based on the Stephen King classic, failed? 'Mamma Mia!' follows Sophie, whose wedding is tomorrow. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but that could be any one of three men because twenty years before, her mother was a very busy lady. What it lacks in plot, however, it more than makes up for with the sunny, multi-layered pop tracks of ABBA that fuel the production, and consequently 'Mamma Mia!' has played continuously in London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne and toured elsewhere round the world for seven years.

From the musical's inception in the mid-90s, it had full support and assistance from Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the founding members of ABBA. In the early 60s, Björn and Benny were playing in hugely popular Swedish bands, the Hootenanny Singers and the Hep Stars respectively. After meeting at a music festival in 1965 they wrote their first song together, which was recorded by the Hep Stars. Stig Anderson, manager of the Hootenanny Singers, realised quickly that together their style was very marketable and encouraged them to write and record an album, and they began to record songs as a duo.

Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad were already pop sensations with successful solo careers when they met Björn and Benny. Agnetha met Björn while filming a pop music special for TV in 1969 and they began a relationship. They were married in 1971, and it is a testament to their fame pre-ABBA that their marriage was the Swedish celebrity wedding of the year. Benny produced Anni-Frid's second album in 1971, and they became involved, eventually marrying in 1978 at the height of ABBA's fame.

But ABBA as we know it didn't really form until sometime in 1972, when Björn and Benny acknowledged that Agnetha and Frida were better singers and asked them to sing lead vocals on future songs. The songs they recorded between 1972 and 1974 were huge hits in Scandinavia but couldn't get exposure elsewhere. Tired of referring to the group as Björn + Benny + Agnetha + Anni-Frid, Stig Anderson called them ABBA using the initial letters of their first names, and the name stuck.

In the 1970s, Eurovision was the only chance European bands had of breaking into the UK and American markets. It was with this in mind that ABBA decided to compete for the place as Sweden's representative in the 1974 contest. 'Waterloo' propelled them into international superstardom that has long outlasted ABBA, which disbanded mid-album in 1982 following the dissolution of Benny and Frida's marriage. Agnetha and Björn had divorced in 1979.

Björn and Benny's friendship has also outlasted ABBA. They continue to collaborate as song-writers and have branched out into musicals, including 'Chess' with lyricist Tim Rice and, of course, 'Mamma Mia!' with playwright Catherine Johnson. Its working title was 'Summer Night City', the name of the group's final single. Like the group at its rather awkward end, the song was abruptly cut following a preview night performance, leaving ABBA fans wishing for just a little more.

Mamma Mia!' is playing at the Edinburgh Playhouse until 20 May.