Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA first let audiences in on their masterpiece, “Kristina Från Duvemåla,” in Malmö, Sweden on October 7, 1995, then record buying audiences were able to obtain the 3-CD cast recording in September of 1996. Almost immediately there was talk about translating the work to English and bringing it to an American audience, particularly because the story of “Kristina Från Duvemåla” (translating to Kristina From Duvemåla) is just as much a story about Sweden as it is a story about America. However, it seems a lot of the work in bringing “Kristina” to America would have to wait due to the surprise success of a little show launched in London in 1999, called “Mamma Mia!” would demand a lot of time and attention for Björn and Benny.
The story for “Kristina” is based on Vilhelm Moberg’s “Emigrants” series of four novels, which follows the lives of a group of Swedish settlers which include Karl Oscar and his wife Kristina, as they make the tough decision to pack up and take their chances settling in the unknown wilds of America in the mid 1800’s. While the books follow the group, the show has singled out Karl Oscar and Kristina to be the central focus of the show. The novels are considered to be some of the finest works in Swedish literature, which is what attracted Björn and Benny to wanting to tell the tale of Kristina. Their earlier musical effort, a collaboration with Tim Rice on an original idea by Tim Rice resulted in the musical “Chess.” As much as “Chess” is praised for it’s incredible songs, it’s also panned for its relatively weak plot, which left Björn and Benny looking for a well crafted story to transform into a musical. Björn and Benny felt for their second musical, they didn’t want plot to be one of the problems to plague the show.
As “Mamma Mia!” swept the world, all of a sudden it seemed people wanted lightweight shows and “jukeboxicals” as they’ve been dubbed as it seems the success of translating ABBA’s back catalog of songs has been tried repeatedly by other artists hoping to breathe new life into their back catalogs, but none have seen the success that “Mamma Mia!” has had and continues to have. The success of “Mamma Mia!” has given Björn and Benny, new found credibility as song writers, but it does present a problem. “Kristina” is a very heavy period piece set in the mid 1800’s capturing a very rustic and tough time for the people in that era, a far cry from the more bubble gum pop that is the basis for “Mamma Mia!” Even “Chess” seems more bubble gum like when compared to “Kristina.” How do you present a show that is more like “Les Miserablés” than it is ABBA?
Well that’s a difficult question, so it actually took a more “Les Miserablés” approach to solve. Björn and Benny brought in Herbert Kretzmer, who was responsible for translating the original French version of “Les Miserablés” into the hugely successful English version, which is still the longest running musical on London’s West End. While this still doesn’t help solve the problem of Björn and Benny’s names being more closely tied to ABBA than serious music theater, but it does give credibility to the translation of the show from the original Swedish. And while it seems audiences aren’t quite ready for a heavy period piece, it’s only a matter of time before the lightweight fluff of Broadway and the West End favors more dramatic pieces, and “Kristina” will be ready and waiting to make her grand entrance then.
In the meantime, to aid the process of “Kristina” coming to the English speaking world, a series of workshops were held in New York, and just when it looked like “Kristina” was going to make her way to the stage in English, a legal battle ensued over the ownership of the script that was written for the musical. This was tied up in courts for a while and through appeals processes before it was ultimately settled. Had the results of the legal battle gone another way, “Kristina” might have been doomed to never be seen as a full show ever again. But this slowed down the process of bringing “Kristina” to English audiences.
The decision was made to introduce “Kristina” in a concert version in New York City at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in late September 2009. The shows were recorded with the intention of being released on Compact Disc to start the process of getting audiences familiar with Kristina in the hopes that someday soon it will be a full production show in English. The concerts were scheduled around Helen Sjöholm, who originated the role of Kristina in the original Swedish production. She has been the voice of “Kristina” from the very beginning and it’s fitting she helps usher in the first English language recording of the show. Additionally, Björn and Benny sought out Louise Pitre, a woman they got to know from her portrayal of Donna in “Mamma Mia!” Louise blew the roof off the house in the original Toronto production, and the pre-Broadway tour, that she was invited to be the first Donna on Broadway. It was such a shame no proper Broadway cast recording was made of “Mamma Mia!” to capture Louise Pitre’s brilliance in the role, but at last she gets to be heard the world over in the first English recording of “Kristina.” And rounding out the main cast are Russell Watson and Kevin Odekirk, who while both are new to Björn and Benny’s productions bring the vocal chops necessary to keep up with Helen and Louise.
I attended the two shows in New York to witness the concert production of Kristina, and it only made me wish I could have seen the Swedish productions of the full show. While the songs are beautiful and amazing, visually there weren’t that captivating in a “concert” style show. Also it was not the easiest to follow the lyrics in the concert show as they were all new. But I knew once I would be able to get my hands on the finished CD, it going to bring the show full circle for me. And it has.
You see, I had ordered the original 3 CD cast recording of “Kristina Från Duvemåla” back in 1996, and I struggled with it many times to try and get to love the recording. I thought it sounded amazing, but I didn’t speak Swedish and I had no visual reference to go by to follow the songs. It didn’t matter so much that I didn’t speak Swedish, it’s just without a visual, I was lost in a huge show. I sat though the CDs on long flights with translations in hand as that afforded the only times I could make it through the whole thing in a single session with a translation in hand. But found it very inaccessible. I wanted to like and love it, but it was locked in a way I wasn’t able to enjoy it. I figured it might take the first English recording to help unlock it and then I could appreciate the original Swedish all the more. But I didn’t think it would take until 2010 before I would get that chance.
I am happy that I finally have the ability to unlock the magic of the original Swedish cast, but I’ve grown so attached to the English cast, that it’ll take me a while to get used to the original Swedes in the roles. Thanks to several of Benny Andersson’s other works, I have had several years to love and appreciate Helen Sjöholm and she’s been with “Kristina” so long, I’m sure she struggled through the concerts to not burst out singing the songs she’s done so many times in their original Swedish. She did a brilliant and remarkable job. And I’ve been following Louise Pitre’s recordings since I first heard her the very first time I saw “Mamma Mia!” when it made it’s debut in the United States in San Francisco. I’ve got every album she’s ever released and even a couple hard to get cast recordings that she’s on. Russell Watson, I only really know from the fact he sung the theme song to “Star Trek: Enterprise” and Kevin Odekirk was completely new to me, but he was so nice to all of us fans in New York that he’s been warmly welcomed into the fold of many of us ABBA fans that went to New York to see these historic concerts.
Long live “Kristina” and may the wonderful concert recording that’s available now for the first time ever in English, serve as a catalyst for a full scale “Kristina” production in English sometime in the near future. In a way, this is kind of like how Björn and Benny started with “Chess”, first the album was released to see the interest in a full show, and then the show came later. Once people start to hear the amazing songs here in “Kristina” I imagine it won’t be too long before a full show will be produced. The showstopper song in “Kristina” is “You Have To Be There” and while it’s a bit reminiscent of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” but takes an emotional journey that in the hands of the right vocalist, like Helen Sjöholm, it will soon become a showtunes standard that all Broadway and West End Divas want to bring to their audiences.
If you want the chance to discover this song and share it with others, you can’t go wrong getting the entire album for “Kristina At Carnegie Hall” and you can do so by clicking here to get it from Amazon.com. The CD version comes with a lyric book for all the songs, so can enjoy reading along and seeing photos from the Carnegie Hall concerts of the brilliant cast. If you just want to download the entire album, you can save a couple of dollars by doing so, Amazon has it by clicking here. The album is available from iTunes, except at the time of this writing, it’s considered a “partial” album, the only track you can’t buy is the instrumental Overture, but this inability to buy the Overture means there is no discounted “album” price, you have to buy all songs individually, and you’re better off buying the album at Amazon.com where you’ll get a heavily discounted price over buying the songs individually. However, if you’re unsure about buying the whole album, try out “You Have To Be There” as the one song to download and you click here to get it from Amazon.com or click here to get it from iTunes, and see if you’re interested in buying all of “Kristina”.