A new musical from Benny and Bjorn of ABBA, Chess and Mamma Mia! fame. How is it that we haven’t heard or seen it in Australia?
Sweeping melodies, soaring ballads and rousing choruses fill the score, thankfully captured on a 2CD set recorded at the 2009 US premiere concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
A stirring story of 18th century Swedish emigrants to the US, Kristina is full of tragedy, with multiple miscarriages, death by yellow fever, death by scurvy and even a particularly heartbreaking death by porridge.
Beginning in Sweden in the mid 1990s, Kristina was a massive hit and is Sweden’s second longest running musical of all time. The original Swedish cast recording, a massive 3CD set, was on the charts for a whopping 74 weeks. A 2001 Swedish tour kept the show going before it was to be discovered further afield.
Who else to write the English language translation than Les Miserables lyricist Herbert Kretzmer? Some of the songs began to be heard in concerts once the English translation was written. After a 2006 New York workshop Alice Ripley (Next to Normal) recorded “You Have To Be There” on the Raw At Town Hall CD she released with Side Show partner Emily Skinner. Kerry Ellis (West End’s acclaimed Elphaba) sang the same song in a concert celebrating the music of Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and also released it on her recent Anthems CD.
Following the September 2009 concerts at Carnegie Hall, a similar concert was held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April 2010. Original Sweden Kristina Helen Sjoholm starred each time, with Louise Pitre (Broadway’s original Donna in Mamma Mia!) as Ulrika.
The plot, based on four novels by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, sees Kristina and her beloved husband Karl Oskar make the difficult decision to leave their home and farm in Sweden and travel to America. Travelling by sea, they survive scurvy, not to mention lice, to arrive in a land of foreign language and customs, where women are curiously almost equal to men.
In the new land, Karl Oscar’s brother Robert succumbs to tragedy in his lust for gold. Former prostitute Ulrika, Kristina’s nemesis-turned-bosom buddy finds new respectability. The settlement in Minnesota grows but is shattered by an Indian uprising. In the tradition of the great operatic heroines, Kristina suffers her umpteenth miscarriage and tragically passes away.
Unfortunately, as moving as Kristina is, the drama of the story is one of the impediments to the musical reaching a wider audience. The inspiring but downbeat plot would be a risk for commercial producers, as would the length. The concerts have featured incredible orchestras that would not be viable in a long running season or tour.
The musical is one of those truly great scores that grows and grows on you the more you listen to it. “You Have To Be There” is an amazing song for a female belter; listen to it below and prepare to be blown away. “Gold Can Turn To Sand” (also embedded below) is a beautiful tenor ballad that was a record-breaking chart-topper in Sweden.
Australia is home to rabid ABBA fans and Mamma Mia! has certainly been a success here. We have no particular Swedish population to speak of but could Kristina ever be staged here? Who knows, but at least we have the wonderful concert recording to enjoy in the meantime.
Man In Chair previously presented:
Photos: Carol Rosegg