Interview from British Tour Programme
"From ABBA to 'Smash Hit Musical' National Tour"

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus have been working together for twenty three years. About ten of those have been spent as the male half and songwriters of the international pop group ABBA, and the last five as composers of Chess.

"It was 1964," Benny explains, "and Björn was in a band and so was I. We met on the road while we were both touring in Sweden. I knew that he wrote music, and he knew that I wrote, and we began working together." ABBA emerged out of changes in both their personal lives. Björn met Agnetha Faeltskog and Benny met Annifrid Lyngstad, who were become their wives and several years later, all four joined into the professional music partnership that was to become ABBA. It was not until 1974, however, when they won the Eurovision Song Contest with "Waterloo" that they were launched on an international career. "That was our great opportunity to reach outside of the Swedish borders" says Benny. "We knew that our abilities were equal to other bands, artists and writers--it's just that we happened to be Swedish that made it so difficult. Nobody cared anything about anything that didn't come from either England or America until then." There followed almost a decade of hits, including such pop standards as "Fernando," "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes It All" and "Thank You For the Music" and, Benny goes on, "maybe the only reason we're still not working is because we're doing Chess instead. But in a way, after ten or eleven years together, the energy starts running out a little. It's no fun to do the same thing over and over again." Björn agrees--"When we went on tour, it was fun for the first week, but then it became tedious. ABBA was huge, people came to the concerts after waiting perhaps months to see us, and they were determined to have a good time and like whatever we delivered. Though I am humbly grateful for our success, at the same time it made everything predictable. We were producing something that we had created sometimes years before, and we knew what the audience reaction would be to it."

The theatre, of course, is less predictable. "For a long time we had been talking about how great it would be if there was a chance to come into the musical theatre," explains Benny. Trying to diversify from pop music, there is in fact little else to choose "if you want to achieve something extra and try new directions, maybe you can write music for ballets or film scores but there the music is only designed to underline what's really happening."

So when Tim Rice suggested Chess, they seized the chance. "Tim came to Stockholm when we were in the middle of recording our last album, The Visitors, and asked if we wanted to collaborate with him. We wanted to do it, so we said to the girls--'Let's take two years off.' It's five years now, of course, and we're still at it!"

During those five years a lot has happened. "We started writing in 1983, but we started thinking about it in 1982. Tim had the idea, a synopsis of the scenes and for a year we talked. We wanted to know what story Tim wanted to tell--to feel at home with the characters, the scenes and situations. From this concept, we proceeded to write music," explains Benny. The writing itself, he goes on to say, is a very disciplined process: "we worked from 10am to 5pm five days a week, for a year. I play the piano, Björn plays the guitar and we play around with ideas." Then when they both liked what they were hearing, they recorded a backing track of it to send to Tim with the lyrics. It's the same process Benny and Björn followed when working with ABBA; the music came first, then the lyrics, before finally recording it in the studio. It was likewise an obvious step for Benny and Björn to make an album of this new work, before it went any further, and it turned out that though they would have therefore done so anyway, Tim had also done so twice himself. "We feel at home recording because of course we've been doing so for a long time and because then we know where we are. If you record it, you know that this is the best way it could sound and you learn how to treat it when it is then transformed to the pit for a smaller orchestra and a theatre as opposed to a studio."

Writing for the theatre is of course different to writing pop music. The actual process may not be--"you sit down, write and work--that's the same," points out Björn, but there is a difference, first of all, in where the idea comes from, "in the theatre, you are given the scenes and a sense of what is happening dramatically is provided. With a pop song, you just play around with rhythms and chords, and suddenly something will come up that you think is good and should be pursued." And though in pop the fact that you're limited to three or four minutes makes no technical difference to what you could accomplish in thirty or forty minutes instead, you are able to sustain musical ideas over an evening rather than dispensing with them briefly. "Themes and motifs can be established, though it's not like we take a good song and play it again," says Benny. "You aim for a style to hold it together, without repeating the numbers." Then also in pop there is a limitation of style, admits Björn. "You have to be contemporary. This is a pop group, and this is the way it sounds. You can't do opera. During the ABBA years a lot of very good melodies came up while writing songs, but we stowed them away because we couldn't use them for ABBA. In a musical you suddenly find there's a place for it."

Finally there's a difference in experience. Chess reached the London stage in 1986, and Benny admits that he is more experienced now, but then "I didn't know which department to hover over. I didn't realise that everything is taken care of, and trying to care for everything, I ended up very exhausted." Also, he realised that doing a musical in the theatre is about compromise. "Doing a concert, the only concern is for how it sounds, and the performing of it. In the theatre there are many more concerns--and you have to give and take for those areas. The director, lyricist or book writer may have a different opinion and very often they are right. Compromising doesn't necessarily mean that you give something away--rather you gain from other departments, so it makes it even better."

© 1991, 2001 - Sylvia Stoddard