With fizzy tunes, glitzy outfits and English-is-my-second-language lyrics, the band ABBA—Sweden’s answer to spun sugar—wasn’t meant to leave a lasting impression. Despite four Top 10 hits, including “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen,” stateside between 1974 and 1982, “we were looked on as slightly kitsch,” says Björn Ulvaeus, who, with Benny Andersson, wrote ABBA’s music. “I thought the songs would be played for a few years, and that’s that.”
It wasn’t. Americans may not have thought ABBA fab, but worldwide the band’s music kept selling.
And selling. All told, their record sales tally 300 million worldwide. Their greatest-hits album alone, ABBA Gold, has sold 20 million copies.
Now, two decades after their last U.S. hit, ABBA is giving America another try. This time the vehicle is Mamma Mia!, a musical that packs 22 ABBA songs into the slight story of a girl on the brink of marriage. Developed with the help of Benny, 54, and Björn, 56, Mamma has been a sellout in London since it opened in April 1999. Its Oct. 18 Broadway premiere was embraced as theatrical comfort food in the wake of Sept. 11—”a giant singing Hostess cupcake,” said The New York Times.
For ABBA, the musical is more than just desserts. “It is sort of like I never heard the songs before,” says Benny, who attended the premiere with Björn but without the group’s female vocalists: Agnetha Fältskog, 51, Björn’s wife from 1971 to 1979, and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, 54, Benny’s wife from 1978 to 1981. “If somebody is up there singing your song, singing their heart out, it makes you melt.”
Since ABBA informally dissolved in 1982 the four have lived in quiet luxury. Benny still turns up five days a week at his private office in Stockholm, driving in from a 19th-century villa in the suburb of Djurgarden where he lives with his current wife, Mona, 58, and son Ludvig, 19. Post-ABBA, he is best known for writing, with Björn, the score for the 1988 Broadway musical Chess. Björn lives in Djürsholm with second wife Lena, 52, and their children Anna, 15, and Emma, 19. (He and Agnetha have two grown children, Linda, 28, an aspiring actress, and Christian, 23, a college student.) “I enjoy life,” he said last year. “I’ve always been very lazy, so I don’t do more than I have to.”
Frida and Agnetha have not enjoyed such pleasant, humdrum lives. In 1992 Frida married Ruzzo Reuss von Plauen, a golf-course architect and titular German prince. “We live a typical country life,” she once said of their home, in Fribourg, Switzerland. “I walk around in thick socks and jeans, and I also like gardening.” But in recent years she was shaken by the 1998 auto-accident death of daughter Lise-Lotte Casper, born in 1967 from Frida’s first marriage. A year later the prince, 49, died of cancer. Frida now focuses on funding environmental education for children. Yet, says her longtime spokeswoman Görel Hanser, “she’s happy for all those years with ABBA and everything it gave her.”
Agnetha Fälkskog has become even warier of the spotlight. Unlike the other three bandmates, she is taking no financial stake in Mamma Mia!, which could earn millions. Today she stays mostly at her 13.5-acre farm outside Stockholm with Linda, her daughter with Björn, and 8-month-old granddaughter Tilda. “Agnetha,” says her agent Staffan Lindé, “hasn’t been so happy.” In 1998 she fell into a relationship with a fan, Dutch forklift driver Gert van der Graaf. The following year she told police he had become a stalker. The authorities booted him out of the country last year.
Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid, who seldom see each other but remain friendly, have not performed publicly together since 1982 and in 2000 turned down $1 billion to tour. “It would have been slavery,” says Björn. But, given the band’s glory years and now this unexpected afterglow, “I don’t mind being in ABBA for the rest of my life.”
Liz Corcoran in London, Richard Eaton in Stockholm and Omoronke Idowu Reeves in New York City