The first news about a virtual ABBA show broke in 2016. Six years later, “Voyage” is set to open at the purpose-built 3,000-seat ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Along the way, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote two new songs for the show and reunited with Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad to record a new album, making a spectacular comeback for the Swedish quartet that first achieved international fame in 1974 by winning the Eurovision Song Contest with “Waterloo.”
After two previews, a VIP invited audience will see the show tonight (Thursday, May 26) and an official opening night happens on Friday, May 27. Fans from all over the world will finally be able to see this one-of-a-kind show featuring technology that has never been seen before. From a production office backstage at the arena, Andersson spoke with Variety via Zoom about the highly-anticipated production.
After a six-year journey, you finally saw the complete finished production of “Voyage” for the first time just six weeks ago. What were your thoughts on this initial viewing?
I thought that everyone who has been working on this project has done a fantastic job. That’s what I felt. It is us up there. It’s ABBA, and so beautifully done. To me, the only question that really mattered was not if it is good enough but how will the audience react when we’re not really there, you know? Will they look at it as a painting? Would you applaud a painting? Would you applaud a movie? You don’t do that. Would they be immersed in what we’re trying to achieve here? The first audience came in on Friday and that was only half-full. They wanted to check the premises, check the bars and see that everything was hunky-dory. The audience was fantastic and the preview we had the day before yesterday was a full house. Yes, an incredible reaction. We were there, I promise you. We were actually there. So I’m very happy.
Fans are wondering if it will be emotional seeing your avatars on stage, since beyond this opening week you will not be present during the show. Did you feel emotional watching the production?
To see the audience, yes. To see ourselves, not much. Because I know what’s going on. The good thing is that we, ABBA, will be equally good or bad every night.
Is it fair to say that this technologically-advanced show is the first of its kind?
Yes, it is, which is why we were turned on by it. We thought, wow, can we really do this? It was good that we had some stamina, because there’s been some uphill [battles] during these five and a half years. We said, “Well, we’ve started it. We need to go through with it and it has to happen.” Everything, from ILM’s work to the lighting to the sound is amazingly beautiful. It’s the best sound you’ve heard in an arena ever, I promise you that. That has been my department. I mean, the music is my department, the band sound. All the people who work with this have been wonderful. But the technique has nothing to do with the show. You sit there and you see a band on stage and that’s what it is.
Almost four decades after the four of you last recorded together, you’re debuting two new songs for the show, “I Still Have Faith In You” and “Don’t Shut Me Down.” Whose idea was it?
That was me. I talked to Björn. I said, if we would have been doing this for real, going out on the stage, we would have added a couple of new songs to perform. And then I called the ladies and they said yes. That surprised me a lot. I think they saw the whole picture, that it would be good for ABBA “Voyage” the concert if we had some new music out there. So we did that and I thought with the first two songs, it went so well and they could still sing and we could still produce music in the studio so we said maybe we’ll do a couple of others while we’re at it, and we ended up doing a whole album.
I understand it went from two songs to five songs to 10 songs.
And then 10. That’s right. We recorded 12 songs and we didn’t finish two of them. No, we said, let’s work on the ones we think we should keep on the album. But this is it. No more.
Björn and Agnetha have publicly said there will be no more ABBA. And now you are saying that, too. No more recordings? Ever?
It’s never say never, but it’s a no. Nothing is going to happen after this.
I thought with the success of the “Voyage” album around the world, you might want to do more.
Yes, it did well. But no.
There is a playlist on Spotify called “Abba A to Z” with every song you have recorded in alphabetical order. It lasts for eight hours. How did you narrow down the vast ABBA catalog to fill the concert’s running time of 90 minutes?
We spent a lot of time on this. We realized we cannot not play [the hits] but we also wanted to give the concert some dynamics, so there are a few songs that the audience will not be too familiar with, but we like them so we put them in. It’s 21 songs and it feels good.
With this new technology, can you change the set list at some point in the future without going back into the motion-capture suits?
Yes. ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] has all the information from us in numbers, so we can bring our body doubles back in. They can do the work if we wanted to swap a couple of songs in a year’s time or so and work on it and it’ll be exactly the same. We don’t have to go back ourselves into the studio again. That’s what they have promised us.
There are eight other songs on the “Voyage” album that are not in the show, so you could possibly add them in a year or two from now.
Maybe. I’m fond of “Ode to Freedom.”
The album was a very bright spot in two very dark years. What did the success of the album mean to you? Were you concerned at all how it would do?
I wasn’t worried. You do the best that you can and you hope for the best. I think it’s the first time we’ve had really good reviews all over.
The album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, the highest ranking of your career in the U.S., and was No. 1 in many countries.
Not bad. So we were happy, of course. But I have to say that it actually was to enthuse people to come to this show.
In 1999, when rehearsals were going on in London for “Mamma Mia!” the stage musical, Björn told me he had no idea if the show was going to be a hit. Did you have the same thoughts about “Voyage”?
It’s the same thing with “Mamma Mia!” or any show, anything that you’re working on. You have your previews and you have all your rehearsals and all that and you can say, “This is as good as we can do it,” and you don’t know if it’s a hit or if it’s a flop until the audience comes in. They give you that. The first time with the audience will tell you everything. It did for “Mamma Mia!” absolutely.
A lot of people are still saying they are going to see holograms on stage, but that is not true. How would you describe the technology?
This has been an impossible task. The only way to explain it is you have to go and see it. Because we are digitally produced and we are actually on stage. We’re not on a screen. Well, we are on a screen but you can’t see that and I don’t know how they’ve done it because it’s so beautiful. It’s amazing. The work they’ve done at ILM and our producers and Baillie Walsh, the director. Yes, it’s real. You’re going to see it when you come. It’s really real and I don’t get it. I’m just happy that we achieved what we set out to do and finally we’re in the starting boxes.
The ABBA Arena was buiIt specifically to house this show and its unique technology. Yet, I’ve read they might tear down the building in four years.
If it runs until Christmas, I’m happy.
I’ll be even happier. The plan is for the city to build housing in this place, so we have about four years, four and a half or whatever, but if I were the mayor of London, I’d keep this arena because it’s beautiful. There’s nothing of the kind in London, no 3000-seaters. I would keep it, put some [other show] out there or let us run if we can.
It’s already been suggested that the next city to host “Voyage” will be Las Vegas.
We’ll see. This has to get on its feet first. We have to see how attractive it is. We’ve sold 380,000 tickets or so. It’s good for a couple months. We need to see if it sells more tickets. But there will be promoters coming in from the U.S. to see if there’s something that will be suitable for their market. I think we’re exactly in the right spot here in London. The English people have always treated us like we were theirs for some odd reason, for which I’m very humbly grateful.