Speaking ahead of their performance at Abu Dhabi’s Adnec this coming Friday, we speak to director and founder Rod Stephen about the enduring success of Björn Again.
The enduring success of Björn Again
Björn Again has been going strong for over 20 years. Are you surprised at its success?
My original plan for Björn Again was for it to be something to do for a Friday night in Melbourne (Australia). Initially, there was no plan beyond a handful of shows to see how the concept would be received as I imagined it only ever as a short term prospect. Within six months, Björn again was becoming a household name in Melbourne. All of the media and especially TV were very keen for interviews and so on. As the show increased in popularity worldwide, I figured Björn Again may last a few years. I must admit I had no idea the show would still be going strong nearly 24 years later. ABBA’s Benny Andersson remarked that Björn Again has been going for twice as long as ABBA did ... I am surprised (pleasantly) by this as well.
How did the idea for the show come about?
As a teenager, I was inspired by a New Zealand band called Split Enz. Their songs were great as were their costumes and onstage theatrics. In the mid 1980s, I wanted to create a show that would encompass all these qualities so I decided to revisit that earlier decade for inspiration. ABBA summed up a huge amount of what Seventies music and fashion was about. It was a decade of dodgy platform shoes, huge flared trousers and equally horrendous shirts, blouses, hairstyles and makeup. The music was catchy and kitsch and the dancing was pretty bad, generally speaking. All of these elements summed up what the Seventies was and were essential ingredients in forming what I designed to be a tongue-in-cheek ABBA parody show. The name Björn Again was my personal pseudonym, which I used when skiing with friends in the Victorian Alps and pretending to be an Ace Scandinavian skier. It was the comedy name I thought best summed up the ABBA show I was putting together.
Do you consider Björn Again a band or a show?
I don't see Björn Again as an ABBA tribute band, really. It is a convenient label. Björn Again is a scripted and choreographed show using session performers with many humorous elements and arrangements that neither ABBA nor their tribute bands would ever do. People sometimes don't grasp the subtlety of Björn Again and only see it as a tribute to ABBA. Either way, ABBA and the Seventies fashion was all but forgotten in the 1980s. I was convinced that if Björn Again was done right, it would be a fun, nostalgic journey.
When you first started the concept, were you worried about what ABBA members would think of the show?
In the early 1990s Benny & Björn were fascinated at the success of Björn Again, as they were convinced their music was finished and forgotten. I took great delight in informing them both that their music was having a huge revival through Björn Again. They later mentioned that they were planning to release a “best of” compilation and drafted Björn Again in to promote it on TV in Sweden. This album was ABBA Gold, which became one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Agnetha was at a Björn Again show in Stockholm. She had a great time and commented on how much she enjoyed the show.
How many performers have been involved with Björn Again throughout the years?
There have been well over 100 personnel that have been employed to perform in the Björn Again show in all the territories around the world.
How are these performers picked?
To fulfill the criteria required to be in the cast, the individual must have a good likeness to the counterpart they are portraying, great vocal, musical and dancing ability (for the girls) and a really good sense of humour.
Many people have seen Björn Again numerous times. Is it a challenge to keep the show and format fresh, especially since the songs never change?
Björn Again is a scripted and choreographed show not unlike the Mamma Mia musical in many respects. The format doesn’t change much because it is already perfect the way it is. People are coming to see much the same show, which has been a success from day one. Occasionally, I will change a few minor elements depending on the nature of the event.
What has been the most memorable performance?
Without doubt, the Shania Twain 2004 Up European Tour. It was a highlight as it was a comprehensive tour taking in many countries and Björn Again was viewed as a fundamental build up to each of the shows. It was a pleasure to work with the cream of international talent associated with Shania’s band on display on that tour.
How does it feel to have such eclectic fans such as Michael Stipe and Dave Grohl?
Björn Again has many fans, including an interesting mix of celebrity fans ranging from all over the artistic spectrum. I think a lot of this is due to their interest in ABBA’s music, but also their appreciation of the concept of Björn Again, which is unique in itself.
What is it about ABBA’s music that continues to remain relevant today?
It is bizarre in some ways that Björn Again has had such ongoing success in 70 countries worldwide. A big part of this is due of course to the initial popularity of ABBA in the 1970s. ABBA’s appeal transcends many cultural and age barriers. The music is fantastic with lyrics that are still valid today. ABBA’s popularity remains today due in part to the extensive touring and global profile of Björn Again but also because of the massive success of films like Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla Queen of the Desert and of course both Mamma Mia the film and the musical. The ongoing popularity of ABBA therefore no longer comes as a surprise to me.
Björn Again plays at Adnec’s Abu Dhabi Hall on Friday October 7. Show starts 7.45pm. Tickets available at www.itp.net.