Is it possible to have too much ABBA?
Knowing me, knowing you, the answer is no.
The spangly Swedish quartet that gave the world “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen” has sold 400 million records since its 1970s heyday and spawned the hugely successful stage and film musical “Mamma Mia!”
And now there’s ABBAWORLD – a new museum-cum-theme park in London with enough music, mementoes and memory-lane appeal to satisfy even the most fervent ABBA fan.
ABBAWORLD’s Swedish organizers promise the exhibition – which opens to the public on Wednesday – will be “a place for total interaction” with the band. The celebration kicks off Tuesday night with a party attended by band members Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anna-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad.
“It started with, ‘How do we give the visitor a big hug in each room?'” said Magnus Danielsson, president of Touring Exhibitions, the company behind ABBAWORLD. “This is going to be more like going to ‘Mamma Mia!’ than going to an exhibition. We want people to sing and dance.”
ABBA’s music is inescapable throughout ABBAWORLD, from the exuberance of “Dancing Queen” through the melancholy of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” to the heartbreak of “The Winner Takes It All” – reminders that the band started off as two married couples and ended as two divorced ones.
The exhibition tells the band’s story in 25 rooms spread over 30,000 square feet (2,800 sq. meters). Glass cases contain spangly costumes in silk, satin and spandex. Visitors can see recreations of Polar Studios, where the band recorded, and the seaside cabin near Stockholm where Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson composed the band’s hits.
One corner holds the helicopter pictured on the cover of the 1976 album “Arrival.”
An ambitious interactive element lets visitors take quizzes, recreate the band’s sound at a mixing desk, or dance and sing alongside an animated ABBA via “holographic video” technology. The gift shop features Abba T-shirts, teddy bears, jigsaw puzzles and figurines – along with CDs.
An audioguide – narrated by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, one of the stars of the film version of “Mamma Mia!” – traces ABBA’s story, from the members’ amateur teenage bands to stardom. The breakthrough came in 1974, when the band was the surprise winner of the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest with “Waterloo” – a song that brought ABBA’s mix of bouncy pop melodies, multilayered harmonies and slightly silly lyrics to the world.
The members of ABBA drifted apart in the 1980s and have vowed not to reunite.
Band members Andersson, Ulvaeus, Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog all support the project and have donated memorabilia and recorded interviews that are played on screens throughout the exhibition.
ABBAWORLD organizers hope to create a place of pilgrimage to match the Elvis shrine of Graceland or Liverpool’s Beatles Story – albeit a moveable one. They plan to send the exhibition on tour after its London run – currently scheduled through March – and create new versions of it in Australia and New York by the end of the year.
The exhibition arose after plans for a permanent museum in Sweden bogged down.
Not bad for a band long considered uncool, even by Swedes.
“I was a big ABBA fan when I was a kid,” Danielsson said. “But I got picked on when I changed schools, so I switched to hard rock.”
The band’s pop genius is now accepted – if not loved – by critics.
“I do understand that they made great pop music in the 1970s,” said Neil McCormick, music critic for the Daily Telegraph. “But that much cheerfulness in one place and that much inanity I can do without.
“They did one thing, they did it pretty well and they flogged it until you never need to hear it again.”
You will hear it again, though – since ABBA’s appeal now spans several generations, from those who lived through the ’70s, or bought the 1992 greatest-hits collection “ABBA Gold,” or saw “Mamma Mia!” on stage or at the movies.
“My first girlfriend, when I was about seven, forced me to act as Bjorn in a fun day at school, playing a tennis racket,” said Mats Daleskog, senior director of production for Touring Exhibitions. “Most of us have a lot of memories – bad and good – with ABBA songs.”