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Benny Andersson on Mamma Mia 2, quitting booze and Abba’s ‘reunion’

Would you like to know why Benny Andersson took ten years to say ‘I Do, I Do’ to a Mamma Mia! sequel? How he rates the vocals of new girl Lily James? And how he got Abba back in the studio after 35 years to record new songs? Then read on, as here we go again… 

It was one of the most successful movie musicals of all time, and the best-selling DVD ever in the UK, yet one of the musical masterminds behind the Mamma Mia! phenomenon was far from excited at the prospect of a sequel.

‘We weren’t that keen on it,’ says Benny Andersson who, along with musical partner Björn Ulvaeus, makes up the untouchable Scandinavian songwriting team at the heart of Abba. ‘Not me, and not Björn. Why? Because the first one was so good.’

Ah-ha!

Why did Benny Andersson take ten years to say ‘I Do, I Do’ to a Mamma Mia! sequel? ‘Because the first one was so good,’ he tells Event

Andersson co-composed and worked as executive producer on the 2008 musical smash, which grossed more than £460 million worldwide. He and Ulvaeus even supplied cameos alongside Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth in the feelgood, singalong, dance-along romcom, built around 24 Abba classics.

Made on a budget of £52 million, the film’s box-office triumph mirrored the success of the original stage musical. Since its 1999 premiere in London’s West End, the theatrical show has been seen by 60 million people internationally and grossed £1.5 billion. At any one time, seven productions are running worldwide. Having made serious money, money, money, a second film was almost inevitable. But it says something about the steely nerve of the Abba songwriters that it’s taken a decade for a sequel to hit the screens – which it does, this month, with the release of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

But, here Andersson is, relaxing in his Stockholm HQ, reasonably conceding that if a sequel hadn’t happened, he wouldn’t have cared. Andersson is more interested in music than money, and he is arguably responsible for pop’s greatest back catalogue, with songs such as Waterloo, Dancing Queen, Take A Chance On Me, The Winner Takes It All, Knowing Me, Knowing You, The Name Of The Game, and many more.

FUNNY, FUNNY, FUNNY

Colin Firth: ‘We had to embrace the laughter and silliness of it’ 

‘I think dignity can be a little overrated, so I relished making a fool of myself, along with all these rather serious actors. There was a fantastic kind of recklessness to making the first film; every time we finished a take, we would look at each other and blanch. What on earth were we doing? Committing career suicide? But it’s one of the experiences I regret least in my life. We had to embrace the laughter and silliness. We decided that we just had to have fun and enjoy the stupid costumes and the stupid… well, I’d better not say anything rude about the music! 

Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård. ‘I think dignity can be a little overrated, so I relished making a fool of myself, along with all these rather serious actors,' says Firth

Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård. ‘I think dignity can be a little overrated, so I relished making a fool of myself, along with all these rather serious actors,’ says Firth

‘I’m afraid my singing causes a lot of tension between me and the rest of the world. I sang at my wife’s birthday one year to cries of “less”. But I loved singing in Mamma Mia! If I have to apologise afterwards, so be it. ‘It might not be for everybody but I’ve followed the screenings around the world and you see people sitting there rather stiffly, waiting to resist this thing, but then the shoulders start to move – and everyone is on their feet in the end.’

For eight inspired years, starting with Eurovision in 1974 and ending on a British TV show in 1982, Andersson, Ulvaeus, and singers Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, produced a flawless run of era-defining, age-defying singles and eight memorable studio albums.

And when you’ve sold more than 375 million records, according to Universal, you can call the shots. Abba reportedly turned down an offer in 2000 of $1 billion for 100 comeback concerts.

Just as Andersson has no wish to tarnish his group’s legacy with a bog-standard, cash-grab reunion, he had no desire to taint a near-perfect musical with a hashed-out sequel.

The new Mamma Mia 2 script revolves around the younger version of Streep’s Donna, played by Lily James

The new Mamma Mia 2 script revolves around the younger version of Streep’s Donna, played by Lily James

The gifted musician quietly got back to doing what he does best: writing music, daily, here on an idyllic island in the middle of the Swedish capital. ‘But then all of a sudden, after seven or eight years, there was a script, by [director] Ol Parker and Richard Curtis,’ recalls Andersson. ‘We read it and everyone said, “Yes, we want to do this.”

The new script revolves around the younger version of Streep’s Donna, played by Lily James. The journey that took her from leaving school in England to running a hotel on the Greek island of Kalokairi is played out in flashbacks. There are also younger incarnations of the characters played by Brosnan and Firth.

There are repeat cameo roles for Andersson and Ulvaeus, which they humbly accept may not trouble the Oscar panel. ‘I’m a piano player again, but not on a beach this time, in a bar! It’s very short – no lines of dialogue. Björn is not playing anything, he’s just sitting. You’ll see,’ he teases.

I HAD A DREAM…

Lily James. 'I lost my confidence and then suddenly was forced to embrace it full throttle,' she says

Lily James. ‘I lost my confidence and then suddenly was forced to embrace it full throttle,’ she says

Lily James: ‘My love of Abba grew from seeing the show so often’ 

‘I used to go and see a show every year for my birthday. That was my present. From really young, my dad used to take me to the ballet. I’d sit on his lap, or sit on three cushions. Then that grew into going to see musicals as I got a bit older and Mamma Mia! was one I saw at least two or three times. And then several of my friends ended up appearing in the West End, being a part of the show, and eventually two of my best girlfriends played Sophie, the lead part. So I’ve seen it so many times. My love for Abba grew from the show. 

‘I loved singing as a kid and then I stopped and I would never get up and do karaoke – unless it was All Saints, that is. But I lost my confidence and then suddenly was forced to embrace it full throttle. I had just finished [the promotional tour for the film] Baby Driver and then literally the next day I was singing with Abba’s Benny and Björn, trying to master these incredibly difficult songs musically. I had to release my inner pop star again. ‘

This time Ulvaeus took a back seat in overseeing new versions of hits from the golden Abba archive, with Andersson taking the helm. He re-recorded the original songs with most of the actors-turned-vocalists in the legendary Abbey Road studios, London. He has just returned from mixing the 17-song soundtrack in Los Angeles, helped by his engineer son Ludwig. Ask him who of the new – or old – cast’s voice has surprised him, and he pauses.

‘I have to say Meryl,’ he says. ‘I knew she could sing, but you should hear her! Amanda, likewise. And Lily is great – I didn’t know she could sing at all. Obviously I heard her sing something at the audition, but that’s one thing. Then you bring her into the studio and it’s totally different. But she is a solid singer. She has heart and she has timbre.

‘Lily has so much to do – she’s singing eight or nine songs. So I said it would be nice if she came to Stockholm. It’s good to be here – no one bothers us – and she did most of the singing in two days.’

How did Pierce Brosnan fare this time? In the first Mamma Mia!, some cynical viewers felt his singing met its Waterloo…

‘Fine, like last time!’ insists Andersson with a chuckle. ‘It’s just you British who think it’s funny that James Bond is singing something romantic.’

There’s another new addition: 72-year-old Cher plays Meryl Streep’s mother, applying her hearty singing style to the classic ballad Fernando. He’ll be lucky if he can still hear the drums above her distinctive voice.

Cher

Hugh Skinner and Lily James (left); Cher (right)

Jeremy Irvine in a scene from the new movie

Jeremy Irvine in a scene from the new movie

‘You can’t miss her, can you?’ laughs Andersson. ‘She has such a personality. I love that. We have our Abba personality, and she has hers. Then you put those two together and it’s… wow. It’s not weird, it’s just kind of wonderful. I always loved Cher, from I Got You Babe. She’s really, really good and she’s a tough chick. She’s good in this; she really is funny. And I think it’s wonderful that she wanted to do it, because it’s so far out – Cher can’t be Meryl’s mother, they’re the same age!’

Andersson is a shaggy 71-year-old with a twinkly, avuncular presence. He has two children in their 50s from his first marriage, which ended in 1966. His second marriage, to band mate Lyngstad, ended in 1980. Famously, the same fate befell Abba’s other couple, Ulvaeus and Fältskog, both marriages torn apart by the pressures of global fame. In 1981, Andersson married a Swedish TV presenter, Mona Nörklit, mother of Ludwig, 36.

Abba’s plain-speaking, often painfully detailed songs documented the group’s relationships with an honesty and rawness that met with universal understanding. That they set these words to irresistible tunes, with infectious piano frills and lusciously layered vocals, was a bonus. Divorce had never been so danceable.

ONE OF US IS CRYING

'I get along as an actor, but not as a singer and dancer!' says Stellan Skarsgård

‘I get along as an actor, but not as a singer and dancer!’ says Stellan Skarsgård

Stellan Skarsgård: ‘I saw the pain in Benny’s eyes as I sang Abba’  

‘When Abba had the Waterloo song out, you heard it on the radio ten times a day, every day for months. I hated it! At that time it wasn’t my kind of music and I was too artsy-fartsy and snobbish to succumb to them. Now I’ve listened to all their songs again and I see the qualities. Musically, they are brilliant. 

‘I sang – not very well – in the BBC series River. And just as tennis is not my forte, singing and dancing is not my forte. I get along as an actor, but not as a singer and dancer! When they started shooting I managed to get through the humiliation of singing one of the songs in front of Benny Andersson when we first recorded it. 

‘I saw the pain in his eyes and his ears and in his face, as I was slaughtering an Abba song. Then he said, “I think we have it!” And I knew he had enough to fix it digitally so my voice could be very far in the background, in the chorus. You’ll see me dancing, but I think they’ve cut out all my singing this time. There will be younger and better singers.’  

Andersson regularly pops tabs of chewing tobacco during our interview but it’s his only vice. He quit drinking 17 years ago, after realising he’d become an alcoholic. ‘I wasn’t feeling well without alcohol, so I knew that I was in trouble,’ he said at the time. ‘I sought help and I got it. I knew that if I continued drinking there was a risk I would lose everything. If you drink enough for a long enough time, you will lose things.’

Does he ever miss the booze? ‘No no,’ he insists. ‘It’s one of the best things I’ve done. Quitting smoking was OK too. I quit smoking on my 40th birthday. Quitting drinking was a necessity. It was getting in the way of everything, as it does. It takes up all the space, all the time. So it’s really something to get off your shoulders. It feels good.’

Andersson is a shaggy 71-year-old with a twinkly, avuncular presence. He writes music, daily, on an idyllic island in the middle of the Swedish capital

Andersson is a shaggy 71-year-old with a twinkly, avuncular presence. He writes music, daily, on an idyllic island in the middle of the Swedish capital

This is the first time he’s talked to a British newspaper about his drinking problem. It first became public in 2011, when Andersson appeared on Sweden’s SVT television channel. He was accompanied by Ludwig, who shared his own past struggles with addiction – in his case, drugs. ‘Alcoholism hits you without you knowing it,’ Andersson adds matter-of-factly. ‘You’re predestined to it or you’re not.’

Andersson, it seems, was also predestined to write timeless melodies. He’s a music obsessive who still comes daily to this office and studio complex to compose and produce. And he’s gearing up, almost four decades after they split, for the busiest year in the afterlife of Abba.

The band originally bowed out in December 1982, with a final performance beamed live to Noel Edmonds’ Late, Late Breakfast Show from a Stockholm TV studio. Since then they have steadfastly refused to re-form. The ‘girls’, burned out by the intense touring experience, were particularly reluctant. And if $1 billion couldn’t persuade them, what possibly could? Cutting-edge technology and the man who gave us the Spice Girls, that’s what.

SUPER TROUPERS

Amanda Seyfried: 'Pierce Brosnan underestimates his voice. I think he did a great job'

Amanda Seyfried: ‘Pierce Brosnan underestimates his voice. I think he did a great job’

Amanda Seyfried: ‘There’s so much love that’s infused into it’  

‘Colin Firth is a better singer than he thinks he is. But when it comes to dancing… it’s more of a struggle for him. He is very modest about his abilities. Stellan is a good dancer, though. I’d copy his style while we were dancing on the tables in the original. Pierce Brosnan underestimates his voice. I think he did a great job. I had the time of my life on Here We Go Again. There’s so much love and so much of a family feeling, and it’s infused 100 times into the film.’  

In October 2016 it was announced that former Spiceman Simon Fuller had partnered with the band to plan an innovative live show featuring ‘avatars’ of Andersson, Ulvaeus, Lyngstad and Fältskog. It was billed as ‘a groundbreaking venture that will utilise the very latest in digital and virtual-reality technology, which will enable a new generation of fans to see, hear, and feel Abba in a way previously unimagined’.

Andersson said at the time: ‘We’re inspired by the limitless possibilities of what the future holds and are loving being a part of creating something new and dramatic. A time machine that captures the essence of who we were. And are.’ Beyond that, the details were sketchy.

Then, in April 2018, this arrived: ‘The decision to go ahead with the exciting Abba avatar tour project had an unexpected consequence,’ began an out-of-the-blue statement, thrillingly signed by all four members. ‘We all four felt that, after some 35 years, it could be fun to join forces again and go into the recording studio. So we did. And it was like time had stood still and that we had only been away on a short holiday. An extremely joyful experience! It resulted in two new songs and one of them, I Still Have Faith In You, will be performed by our digital selves in a TV special produced by NBC and the BBC for broadcast in December. We may have come of age but the song is new. And it feels good.’

Holy Chiquitita! The Scandi-pop idols were back in business. The astounding news, like Kim Kardashian’s derriere or Drake dropping an unexpected album, ‘broke the internet’.

Lily James belts out a number. 'I had just finished [the promotional tour for the film] Baby Driver and then literally the next day I was singing with Abba’s Benny and Björn'

Lily James belts out a number. ‘I had just finished [the promotional tour for the film] Baby Driver and then literally the next day I was singing with Abba’s Benny and Björn’

From left: Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried and Christine Baranski

From left: Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried and Christine Baranski

DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW…

 Couples flocking to Skopelos to get married in the now-famous Mamma Mia! chapel find they’ll have to say ‘I do, I do, I do’ elsewhere as you have to be strictly Greek Orthodox to wed there. 

 The structure of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is coincidentally the same as that of Oscar-winning Mafia epic The Godfather Part II, in that it works as both a prequel and a sequel.

Tom Hanks, a producer on Mamma Mia! and its sequel, tried out for a role but was unsuccessful. ‘My singing voice would have scared the children,’ he said.

‘It went bang,’ Andersson marvels. ‘That surprised us. How much love there was, and interest, all over the world. One has to be grateful that we’re still in people’s minds.’

Andersson elaborates on pop’s most hotly rumoured resurrection. He is under strict instruction to not reveal any specifics of the new music, the tour or the TV special, which will possibly be accompanied by a new documentary on the group. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm gets the better of him.

Explaining the decision to record fresh material, he says: ‘We were thinking: if we’re doing this tour, shouldn’t we have something new? And we talked to the girls and they said, “Yes!’” he enthuses. ‘That’s why we went into the studio, and we had a great time.’

The two new tracks were recorded for the most part in the room where Andersson now sits. Fältskog, 68, and Lyngstad, 72, came in for a day, joining Andersson, 73-year-old Ulvaeus and a five-piece band. The old Abba magic, he says, was instantly apparent.

‘We all felt that. It was like no time had passed. Thirty years had just gone out the window, and we continued where we’d last stopped.’

Abba in 1972: Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog

Abba in 1972: Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Agnetha Fältskog

He’s unclear himself on the futuristic technical specifics of how the ‘Abbatar’ show will work, but he credits Fuller with initiating the project. It was the publicity-shy British entrepreneur who ‘had the dream’.

‘He had this idea that we could go on the road without going on the road,’ Andersson explains. ‘What intrigued us was the fact that no one has done it – and, well, for a good reason, because it’s so bloody expensive! To make these avatar faces perfect, every little pore, every little glint in the eye, everything moving in your face – they came here and put lots of dots on our faces. They took pictures, pictures, pictures… very thorough.’

KNOWING ME, KNOWING WHO? 

Your guide to characters old and new… and yes, the stars are brighter than ever, Fernando (played by Andy Garcia!) 

1. RUBY SHERIDAN (Cher) 

Donna’s mother and Sophie’s grandmother. 

2. SKY (Dominic Cooper) 

Sophie’s other half, who fell for her when he was travelling to ‘find himself’. 

3. TANYA (Christine Baranski) 

A wealthy divorcee and one-third of the group Donna and the Dynamos. 

4. ROSIE (Julie Walters) 

The other Dynamo and a successful cookery writer. 

5. HARRY BRIGHT (Colin Firth) 

An English banker and one of Sophie’s potential fathers. In the first film he revealed that Donna was the first and last woman he ever loved. 

6. BILL ANDERSON (Stellan Skarsgård) 

A Swedish travel writer and sailor and another of Sophie’s potential fathers. 

7. SAM CARMICHAEL (Pierce Brosnan) 

An Irish-American architect and the last of Sophie’s potential fathers. He never got over Donna, and they were married at the end of Mamma Mia! 

8. DONNA SHERIDAN (Meryl Streep) 

The owner of a hotel on the Greek island of Kalokairi and lead singer of Donna and the Dynamos. 

9. SOPHIE SHERIDAN (Amanda Seyfried) 

Donna’s spirited daughter who went looking for her father and found three. She is currently helping run Donna’s hotel and is expecting her first child. 

10. YOUNG DONNA (Lily James) 

She has just graduated from Oxford and is travelling the world, but she believes her destiny lies in the Greek islands. 

11. YOUNG SAM (Jeremy Irvine) 

A young architect who has fallen in love with Greece and is staying on the islands when he meets Donna. 

12. YOUNG BILL (Josh Dylan) 

A real ladies’ man, who is spending his time crewing luxury boats around Greece and flirting with women. 

13 YOUNG HARRY (Hugh Skinner) 

A bumbling posh boy who was living in Paris when he met Donna and followed her to Greece. 

14 YOUNG TANYA (Jessica Keenan Wynn) 

She arrives in Greece with Rosie to see Donna and can’t believe she wants to stay there and turn the hovel she has found into a hotel. 

15. YOUNG ROSIE (Alexa Davies) 

Donna’s other friend from Oxford, who supports her through her romances and pregnancy. 

16. FERNANDO (Andy Garcia) 

The manager of Donna’s hotel on Kalokairi.

 

 

But what delighted Andersson most was recreating that unique Abba sound.

‘The girls sang!’ he beams, still high on the heady harmonies of Agnetha and Anni-Frid.

‘Once they start singing together,’ Andersson claps his hands delightedly, ‘it’s like, yeah, this is what it sounded like.’

Mamma mia, here we go again. The return of Abbamania is imminent.

Breaking up is never easy, we know. But getting back together again, it appears, is hugely exciting. 

What about those songs? Will they be Gimme Gimme Gimme a break, or… thank you for the music?  

When I Kissed The Teacher

Sung by Lily James, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Alexa Davies & Celia Imrie

The film’s theme tune, already out as a download. But how do you handle it today? As camp, of course. Lily James has a ball, and, with a few changes of pronoun, the randy teacher becomes a woman. This would have been too risqué in the Seventies, but now seems, paradoxically, safer.

Waterloo

Sung by Hugh Skinner & Lily James

Hmm. One of Benny and Björn’s brainwaves was grasping that their songs would work better in female hands. It will take a stronger singer than Hugh Skinner to change that.

Why Did It Have To Be Me?

Sung by Josh Dylan, Lily James & Hugh Skinner

A big-band number, not very Abba, but very Hollywood.

The Name Of The Game

Sung by Lily James

Written for Abba: The Movie 41 years ago. A beautiful number, featuring a stirring trumpet: Lily James meets Penny Lane.

The young Donna and the Dynamos on set

The young Donna and the Dynamos on set

I Have A Dream

Sung by Lily James

Abba’s folkiest hit gets a folky treatment, with lashings of accordion. You may well believe you’re on a Greek island.

Kisses Of Fire

Sung by Panos Mouzourakis, Jessica Keenan Wynn & Alexa Davies

A folk tune that suddenly switches to disco-era Abba. It’s like tucking into your moussaka, only to find it’s turned into meatballs.

Mamma Mia

Sung by Lily James, Jessica Keenan Wynn & Alexa Davies

Starts off slow and soulful, then speeds up and becomes routine, although ‘How can I resist YA?’ is nicely done.

Ask Benny who of the new – or old – cast’s voice has surprised him, and he pauses. ‘I have to say Meryl,’ he says

Ask Benny who of the new – or old – cast’s voice has surprised him, and he pauses. ‘I have to say Meryl,’ he says

Angel Eyes

Sung by Christine Baranski, Julie Walters & Amanda Seyfried

Like Daniel Day-Lewis making ballgowns in Phantom Thread, Benny Andersson loves to work with layers of femininity. With three voices instead of the original two, he can’t go wrong.

Knowing Me, Knowing You

Sung by Jeremy Irvine, Lily James, Pierce Brosnan & Amanda Seyfried

Verses by the men, choruses by the women. The choruses have it. 

 



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