Mamma Mia, here they go again. Not even the presence of Hollywood actors such as Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep could overshadow the real stars of what is likely to be one of the summer's top box office hits: Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid, collectively known as Abba. The Stockholm film premiere of the musical, built around a procession of their greatest hits, saw a rare reunion of the Swedish pop group, who last performed together in 1986. Mamma Mia! opens in the UAE and the rest of the world this week, with audiences already declaring: "Thank You For the Music."
For the entertainment industry, it is simply a question of Money, Money Money. Abba were once rumoured to have turned down US$1 billion (Dh3.5bn) for a reunion tour, but like the rest of the planet, were unable to resist the pull of a musical phenomenon that is estimated to have earned well over $2bn worldwide. Almost all the group's members are now well past the age when it is safe to don Spandex flared bodysuits. Benny Andersson is 61 and Bjorn Ulvaeus, 63 while Anni-Frid Reuss-Lyngstad, better known as Frida, is now 62.
Agnetha Falstog, the baby of the band at 58, is one of the main reasons Abba never appear in public. She became a recluse for several years after being stalked by a former boyfriend. The group shot to fame when they won the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest with Waterloo. After a dozen years at the top of the pop charts, they disbanded. They were, it seemed, as dated as platform boots, sequinned mini skirts and bubble perms.
Instead the musical's success has created a new generation of fans and a torrent of tribute bands as well as allowing those approaching middle age to admit that they once danced to Knowing Me, Knowing You and Chiquitita. None of the group actually appears in Mamma Mia! But the musical, set on a Greek island, owes its success almost entirely to a soundtrack of Abba's greatest hits, all catchy enough to support a flimsy plot about a young girl trying to discover the identity of her father on the eve of her own wedding.
After Abba's songwriters, Andersson and Ulvaeus, were persuaded to release the copyright, the musical premiered in London in 1999 with a script by Catherine Johnson, then a single mother struggling to pay her bills. Along with its creator Judy Craymer and director Phyllida Lloyd, she is a now a multimillionaire. The show has since run in almost every major city from Madrid to Moscow and is estimated to earn $4 million a week. A touring version of Mamma Mia! played for a week in Dubai last year.
Meryl Steep, the Oscar-winning actress who plays Donna, a taverna owner uncertain of her daughter's paternity, became a fan after seeing the New York version, which opened on Broadway in Oct 2001, barely a month after the destruction of the World Trade Center. "We left floating on air," she recalled in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph. "We were so elated. It couldn't have been a better tonic for the city and I wrote the cast a note thanking them for the music and what they gave us because it was something that meant a lot at that point."
When a film version of the musical was planned, the producers contacted Streep, 59, without much expectation that she would accept. In fact, the actress says of her reaction to receiving the invitation: "I just about died. "I kept saying, 'Are you sure you want me, because I'm not the likeliest choice, you know.' But I was thrilled because I love the music and it meant a lot to me." Over 30 million people are estimated to have seen the show on stage, a figure that is likely to pale into insignificance when the film version opens around the world in the coming weeks. There have been glowing reviews, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it "the most fun to be had at the movies this or any other recent summer".
Streep's co-stars include Julie Walters and Christine Baranski as her oldest friends and Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan as two of the men from her misspent youth. Brosnan, the former James Bond, has admitted that he accepted the part despite a complete inability to hold a note. His vocal efforts have been defended by Andersson, who said: "I think he has a great voice. He couldn't sing Nessun Dorma but neither could I and I was in Abba." Both Andersson and Ulvaeus have kept strict artistic control over the film, which was produced by Tom Hanks who probably echoed many others last week when he admitted: "I did not realise how many Abba songs I know. I know them all."