Saturday, August 20, 2016

Benny, Björn and I

I just realised something. I have a post highlighting my number one love-to-hate musical composer, but haven't ever really written about my real favourite musical composer/lyricist duo.

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

You might have heard of them. Of the ABBA fame, you know.

I've been a fan of ABBA pretty much ever since I can remember, and the world tour of Mamma Mia! that stopped in Helsinki in 2008 was my first ever live musical. Indeed, I think I will always have a soft spot for Mamma Mia!, the mother of all jukebox musicals... But Andersson and Ulvaeus have also written three musicals from scratch. Two of those shows are especially important to me – and the very reason I adore Andersson and Ulvaeus so much.

So in this post, I'm going to shamelessly fangirl them!

Kristina från Duvemåla, Svenska Teatern, 2012–2013. Photo by Cata Portin.

If I had to pick a single favourite musical score, I think I would go for Kristina från Duvemåla, music by Andersson and lyrics by Ulvaeus.

Based on Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg's The Emigrants novels, Kristina från Duvemåla (premiered in Malmö, Sweden, in 1995) tells the story of a 19th century Swedish woman moving to America with her husband and children. Written out like that, it sounds a bit mundane, a realistic and down-to-earth story. But listening to it... Kristina is a musical symphony that soars to great heights, from joy to the deepest sorrow.

Sailing to America knowing she's never going to see home again, titular character Kristina faces many experiences and feelings I cannot personally relate to. But the music – more so than any other musical score – makes me understand. It's all there, Kristina's feelings and hopes, her fears and her decisions.

Gosh. I love this musical.

Maria Ylipää performs Du måste finnas

I enjoy every second of Kristina från Duvemåla, but there is one song I appreciate in particular. No piece of music has ever hit me like hearing Du måste finnas for the first time did.

In her big solo, devoutly religious Kristina faces a newfound, scary doubt: could it be that God doesn't exist? Sitting in Svenska Teatern in 2012, listening to Maria Ylipää's performance, I found out I had misplaced my tissues – so soon enough, I had to attempt drying the rivers running down my face with my sweater. I think I was sobbing out loud a bit. I cannot put what I felt into words. Every chord in the song struck a chord with me.

Du måste finnas highlights the enormity of an ordinary person's most private feelings. Each of us contains multitudes, and here, we get to see inside one woman's mind. Kristina expresses feelings she has never shared with anyone, apart from the god she is no longer certain exists. To say it's a powerful song is an understatement.

However, when you look at the musical as a whole, Du måste finnas is detached from the big arc of the story (that is the case with the corresponding scene in Moberg's original novel, too. Following the books to a tee, the musical inherits all of their problems). There is hardly any leadup, and afterwards, Kristina's faith is never discussed again. If anything, she seems to revert to the firm believer she was beforehand. So maybe we are supposed to infer she got an answer to her plea?

Indeed, Kristina från Duvemåla is not a perfect musical. Lasting for almost four hours, it's an overbloated spectacle. If (when?) it's staged again, I think it would be for the better to cut out 30 minutes and give it a brand-new direction.

But as a cast recording, as a piece of music, as a symphony, I wouldn't cut a minute.

A trailer for GöteborgsOperan's 2012–2013 production of Chess på svenska

Chess, Andersson and Ulvaeus' first musical from 1984, is very different from Kristina. It's a story about a Cold War era chess tournament, with an American and a Soviet grandmaster competing for the world championship – and for the affections of a certain woman.

With book and lyrics by Tim Rice, Chess has undergone many transformations: never quite finding a perfect mix, different productions feature different songs, different subplots and even different endings.

I have a less passionate relationship with Chess than I do with Kristina. I have never seen it live, and on paper, the plot doesn't really excite me. I'm sure seeing a live production of Chess would help me get a firmer grasp of the story, but while looking forward to that, I don't think I will be drawing fanart of Chess characters anytime soon.

But then there's that one thing again: the music. Ranging from classic symphonic musical sound to 80s pop... I love it all.

Chess has been recorded multiple times, in many languages. The Swedish Chess på svenska from 2002 is one of my top five musical cast recordings of all time. The score, the singers, the orchestra, the orchestrations, the sound quality of the recording... As a piece of music and as an album, it's absolutely perfect. I can listen to it time and time again, multiple times in a row, and the music floors me every time. Every song is a beautiful part of a gorgeous whole.

The Arbiter from GöteborgsOperan's production of Chess på svenska, with identical twins Henrik and  
Magnus Rongedal playing the character together. Maybe my favourite take of the song out there!

When it comes to dramaturgy, Chess and Kristina från Duvemåla both have their fair share of problems. But the way I enjoy them... For me, they're as much symphonies as they are pieces of theatre. Maybe more so. What does it matter that the plots are little clunky when the music flows forward with such beauty, beauty I have yet to find in any other musical?

There is plenty of good music out there, great music, songs I enjoy. Musicals and other genres. But nothing, nothing stops me on my tracks like these two musicals do.

Listen to Chess and Kristina on Spotify:

Chess på svenska – My favourite. I recommend listening to this even if you don't speak a word of Swedish. The music has it all.

Chess original cast recording – If you want to familiarise yourself with the original, English-speaking edition of the show. Rather more... 80s than the Swedish one.

Chess highlights – This short album from 2012 features a mostly Nordic cast (Maria Lucia, Jonas Malmsjö, Philip Jalmelid, Signe Kærup Hjort and Robbie Scotcher), English lyrics and enjoyable interpretations of the nine songs included.

Kristina från Duvemåla – The original, nearly three-hour long Swedish cast recording. What can I say. For me, it's perfect.

Kristina at Carnegie Hall – If you are not familiar with the show, I warmly recommend this English concert recording, complete with narration. It gives a good overview of the plot and the songs.

P.S. I have had a literal close encounter with my idols. In the last performance of Kristina från Duvemåla in Svenska Teatern in 2013, me and my friend sat two or three rows behind Benny Andersson himself – and then, after the show, I almost crashed into Björn Ulvaeus on my way downstairs. Huh! Maybe some braver soul would have approached for an autograph, but for shy little me, the fact I got to experience the incredible musical with the creators themselves joining us in the audience is quite enough to still make me smile.

P.P.S. A note on the other Andersson/Ulvaeus musical, Hjälp sökes (2013): I have listened to it once and didn't really feel it – but I'm waiting for the right moment to give it a second chance. I'm sure there's more for me to explore there than what met the ear during the first listen.


  1. Speaking of 'Hjälp sökes' I want to add that I have only listed to the cast album once but, like you, wasn't really hooked. On the other hand, hearing Kristin Lidström performing "Bortom sol och måne", from Trettondagskonsert 2016, is magic:

    (I found this blog looking for reviews of Les Mis in Karlstad. I'm going tomorrow ;-) )

    1. Thanks for the link – that's indeed a really beautiful rendition! <3

      Hope you had fun at Les Mis today! :) I can't wait to see the production again in November, it's so good...

  2. I tend not to look too closely into musicals I've never seen, just because when/if I ever do get a chance to see them, I like that element of freshness. (It does backfire sometimes, as some musicals actually benefit from some foreknowledge.) So I actually had no idea that Chess was about literal chess. I thought the title was metaphorical. I'm stunned. Haha.

    1. Hahah! :'D

      I understand your approach. It's such a refreshing, fun feeling to see a musical that you're not familiar with at all, it gives the show a change to surprise you. I've sometimes made decisions like that – like the time I bought a Tanz der Vampire cast recording but didn't listen to it before I saw it live, since when I was buying it, I already knew the musical was coming to Finland. But oftentimes, I'm just too curious to stay away!