Published in KPBS On Air Magazine August 2003
“I was a huge ABBA fan as a kid,” 37 year-old Ellen Harvey confesses. “At 8, I danced to their first album on our sofa in Sweden.” Now the former San Diegan, a professional dancer-singer-actor, is coming back ‘home’ in the national touring company of the smash-hit ABBA musical, “Mamma Mia!” (at the Civic Theatre, August 12-24).
Harvey’s parents, long-time theater professors at San Diego State University, are proud — of their daughter’s theatrical success, and the Swedish connection. Anne-Charlotte Harvey was born in Stockholm, and was awarded the King of Sweden’s Gold Medal for her work promoting Swedish culture in the U.S. She’s a translator, dramaturge and acknowledged expert on the famous Swedish playwright/novelist/poet August Strindberg, Sweden’s other most famous export. Michael Harvey is a known and respected local actor and director who focuses on classics by the likes of Shaw, Shakespeare and Sheridan. So how did their daughter, who came up through San Diego Junior Theatre, attended Helix High, and went on to get a conservatory degree in acting, wind up in a touring Broadway musical based on the songs of the bubble-gum pop-rock phenom of the 1970s?
Ellen Harvey was never pushed into the ‘family business,’ but she got her start playing the Baby Jesus at 3 months of age. “I always say it was the highlight of my career,” quips the ebullient, multi-talented performer. “How does it get better than that?” Well, it has. She performed on Broadway in “The Music Man” and understudied Diahann Carroll as Norma Desmond on the tour of “Sunset Boulevard.” Then, much to her surprise (“Me? Sing rock ‘n’ roll?”), she landed a leading role in the touring company of “Mamma Mia!,” the 1997 runaway hit with songs by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (the two Bs in ABBA) that’s become one of the most successful musicals of all time.
“Mamma Mia!” is a free-wheeling mother-daughter story of mistaken identity and mishaps, with an old-fashioned, happy ending. Donna, a feisty 40-something single mom, wistfully recalls her carefree days and careless nights, while her soon-to-be-married daughter Sophie dreams of tradition, romance and a big white wedding. As Sophie tries to find out which of three possible men is her mystery father (so he can walk her down the aisle), her mother’s high school buddies — formerly the rock trio, The Dynamos — arrive to help make the wedding happen and to make it sing. Tanya (like Ellen Harvey, who plays her) is a Dynamo.
“She’s great,” Ellen says of her character. “Three-times divorced and filthy rich. She has a very dry wit, a lot of physical comedy, and fabulous clothes — diamonds and Chanel shoes. What fun!” The dancing and physical humor were added to this tour to accommodate Ellen’s prodigious talents. “But the real star,” she says, “is the music.”
“They were the best in Europe,” says Anne-Charlotte of ABBA. “In Sweden, we were so proud of them. They were so clean and fresh and wholesome. Gifted musicians.” “And,” adds Mike (after 40 years, they often complete each other’s sentences), “their music is more complex than you’d think, with recurring social themes.” “Soldiers, money, social justice, love of nature. Their songs retain the flavor of Swedish folk music,” says Anne-Charlotte, who specializes in that genre. “ABBA has managed to keep the blondeness — not the blandness — in the music. Some of their lyrics actually sound like German expressionism: ‘It’s always sunny in a rich man’s world,'” she quotes from “Money, Money, Money.”
Ellen’s 29 fellow cast-members love it when her parents come to the show (they’ve seen it three times), because “they talk analytically about it for hours.”
The musical features 22 ABBA songs, including “The Winner Takes It All,” “Dancing Queen,” “Take a Chance on Me” and the title tune. Try reading that sentence and not have one of those tunes course through your head immediately — and for the rest of the day. Whatever anyone says about ABBA, their music was certainly infectious, and it embedded itself in the international consciousness. The musical, in fact, has been translated into a number of languages, including German and Japanese, but it’s never been performed in Sweden or in Swedish, and Andersson and Ulvaeus reportedly want to keep it that way.
“Every once in a while,” Ellen Harvey, a Swedish-English bilingual, confesses with a devilish laugh, “I’ll start singing one of the songs in Swedish. But never onstage.” And never for Björn or Benny, who have yet to watch this company, though they’ve seen all the others on tour or abroad.
Ellen Harvey admits that “Mamma Mia!” “may seem like a ‘chick-show,’ but there’s something for everyone to relate to. It may be fluff, but it’s funny and joyful, it appeals to multiple generations, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s about good friends, family values, and what’s most important in life.”
For the Harvey family, nothing could be Swede-r.
[Mamma Mia! makes its San Diego debut at the Civic Theatre, August 12-24; 619-570-1100 or 619-220-TIXS).
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.