- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

They are indeed the name of the pop game. Swedish group ABBA seems to burst onto the music scene every 10 years to remind us of the quartet's uncanny ability to create timeless pop hits.
Formed in the 1970s, ABBA was at the top of its game in 1980. Then, in the early '90s, the foursome released "ABBA Gold," a greatest-hits album that sold more than 22 million copies.
Now, "Mamma Mia," a musical with 22 of the supergroup's hits, is touring the United States and will open Thursday at the National Theatre in downtown Washington.
The B's in ABBA, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, have collaborated with producer Judy Craymer to create the box office hit, which is playing in six locations worldwide simultaneously.
The London show, which opened in April 1999, is in its fourth year and still selling out.
"We had no idea. We just hoped that London would work," Ms. Craymer says by phone from her London office. "We certainly didn't think it would go straight to Broadway."
But it did.
"It's funny, the intelligent audience is kind of affronted by how much they enjoy their evening," Ms. Craymer says. "One theater critic in New York said, 'You just have to check your cynicism at the door.'"
Ms. Craymer, who worked with the ABBA men on "Chess," a musical that played in London between 1986 and 1989 but flopped on Broadway, had wanted to do something theatrical with ABBA's simple, catchy songs for a half-dozen years. In 1995 she persuaded Mr. Andersson and Mr. Ulvaeus to work with her.
"This musical is kind of my baby," she says. "I always thought there was something very theatric about the music…. Bjorn's lyrics tell a story that you can follow."
After Mr. Ulvaeus saw a production of "Grease" in London's West End, he knew a musical with ABBA music would fly, she says.
"He said, 'You're not as mad as I thought you were' and then admitted quietly that he thought the ABBA music was far better than that of 'Grease,'" she says.
But the Andersson/Ulvaeus team would grant the rights to the music only if the musical's story line was convincing and a good match for ABBA's beloved songs, including "Dancing Queen," "Take a Chance on Me," "The Name of the Game" and "Mamma Mia."
The two men were the song-writing team for ABBA before the group disbanded in 1982. The A's in ABBA, Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad, were the glamorous singers and at one point married to the B's (Ms. Faltskog to Mr. Ulvaeus, Ms. Lyngstad to Mr. Andersson).
The A's pursued solo careers in the 1980s, but never achieved the success they had with ABBA.
To Ms. Craymer's delight, the Andersson/Ulvaeus team gave a green light to British writer Catherine Johnson's book about a girl who is getting married on a mythical Greek island for "Mamma Mia."
The bride-to-be of course wants to invite her father, whom she's never met, but mamma mia the mother says she's not sure who the father is. It could be any one of three men.
This is not the first time ABBA's music has been used in a wedding story. It was used in the 1995 Australian comedy "Muriel's Wedding."
Another Australian film, the 1994 movie "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," also used ABBA's timeless tunes songs that can be difficult to get out of your head once you've heard them.
"If you dissect the songs, they're addictive, memorable and infectious," Ms. Craymer says.
ABBA biographer Carl Magnus Palm, a Swede who has written three books about the pop stars, agrees and adds that the group's catchy songs "fulfill a need for light relief."
"[ABBA] took their lightweightedness seriously and that was why they had such appeal," Mr. Palm says during a phone interview from Stockholm. "Everyone loves a good tune, and the production was always very solid and has stood the test of time."
ABBA seemed different from musicians with heavy, sometimes brooding sounds and lives lived in the fast lane.
"You couldn't help falling in love with them because they seemed so innocent," Mr. Palm says.
Plenty of stars of pop and rock have been influenced by the Swedish group, whose members now are in their mid- to late 50s, Mr. Palm says.
"I believe you will hear their influence most clearly in today's pure pop, such as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears: strong melodies, lots of harmonies, well-crafted productions," Mr. Palm says.
But the influence also can be seen in less obvious places. Kurt Cobain is said to have been a fan, and the hip-hop band the Fugees sampled ABBA in one of their songs, Mr. Palm says.
Among world leaders said to be ABBA fans are former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.
But for someone to admit liking ABBA in the 1970s and early '80s "wasn't comme il faut," or quite proper, Mr. Palm says.
"They were regarded as the ultimate symbol of commercialism. But today most people just enjoy the music for what it is," he says.
Ms. Craymer, for example, was not an ABBA fan in the '70s and '80s. She liked punk rock, she says. Mr. Palm says he also preferred American and British bands of a heavier ilk.
Teens today, however, have no problem acknowledging they like ABBA. On Barnes and Noble's Web site, plenty write of their love for ABBA in minireviews.
"It's funny. Young people are listening to them and they think they are just discovering them," Ms. Craymer says.
Even among those who were skeptical of ABBA's bright tunes and naive personas in the '70s and '80s, there are newfound converts.
"It's now OK to say that you like them," Ms. Craymer says. "The cool people even like them now."
So, Ms. Craymer invites Washington audiences to take a chance on "Mamma Mia," which is making money, money, money all over the world.

WHAT: "Mamma Mia"
WHERE: The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
WHEN: Next Thursday through June 8. 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $35 to $75
PHONE: 800/447-7400

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