Victor Hugo

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo
Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When Victor Hugo sat down to write one of his novels, little did he know it would inspire the greatest musical of our time, Les Misérables. He did not intend his novel for the stage, but as the above quote suggests, Hugo understood the importance of music. During his literary career of over six decades, Hugo wrote lyrics, poems, satires, essays, speeches, funeral orations, letters, diaries, plays and novels. As well as Les Misérables, Hugo is famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into an animated musical in 1996. Through musical adaptations, millions of people know Victor Hugo’s work; it is time to learn about the author.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo

Victor-Marie Hugo, born on 26th February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France, spent his first year travelling from place to place due to his father’s career in the Napoleonic Army. Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774-1828) enlisted in La Grande Armée at the age of 14 and had worked his way up the ranks to General by the birth of his youngest son.

Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821), a French painter, gave birth to two sons before Victor: Abel Joseph (1798-1855) and Eugène (1800-1837). His father claimed Victor’s mother conceived him on a peak in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France on 24th June 1801. Victor Hugo later used this date as the prisoner number of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables: “24601”. After Victor’s first birthday, Sophie grew tired of the frequent upheaval of army life and settled in Paris with her sons. While there, Sophie regularly met with her youngest son’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie (1766-1812), with whom she may have had an affair. She soon learnt her husband, now a Colonel, also had a secret liaison, although he returned to the family in 1807. 

Joseph Léopold spent less than a year with his sons before being called to Spain to fight in the Peninsular War. Sophie and her sons moved into an old convent at the edge of Paris. Victor’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie, lived in hiding in a chapel on the estate from the Revolutionary Army who wished him dead due to his political beliefs. Sophie, who secretly shared these ideas, allowed Fanneau de La Horie to mentor her sons until they moved to Spain in 1811. The Spanish king Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) had honoured her husband with the title Count Hugo de Cogolludo y Sigüenza.

Abel Joseph, Eugène and Victor were sent to the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad in Madrid for a proper education, but Sophie wished to return to France. Joseph Léopold overruled his wife’s wish to take the boys with her, so she returned to Paris alone, officially separated from her husband. Whether she returned to her lover, Fanneau de La Horie is uncertain, but records state the Revolutionary Army arrested and executed him in 1812. To prevent his sons returning to their mother after their schooling, he enrolled them at a private boarding school in Paris where they remained for three years.

Adèle Hugo as a young woman, by Louis Boulanger

During his time at the school in Paris, where he also attended lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand, Victor Hugo developed a passion for writing. In 1817, he received an honourable mention for a poem he had written, and many Academicians refused to believe he was only 15 years old. After leaving school, Hugo moved in with his mother and started attending law school. Going against his mother’s wishes, Hugo began dating his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher (1803-68). A year after his mother died in June 1821, Hugo and Adèle married.

Hugo started his writing career with his brothers who established the periodical Le Conservateur littéraire (“The Literary Curator”). The magazine allowed writers to express their royalist views but had little success in liberal France. In 1822, the year of his marriage, Hugo wrote a book of poems, which earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII (1755-1824), and the following year, he published his first novel, Han d’Islande.

Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine on the day of her first communion.

Hugo and Adèle celebrated the arrival of their first child Léopold in 1823, but sadly he died before his first birthday. The following year on 28th August, they welcomed their second child Léopoldine (1824-43), followed by Charles (1826-71), François-Victor (1828-73) and Adèle (1830-1915). His children did not hinder Hugo’s career, and he published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840. The year before his youngest daughter’s birth, Hugo wrote his first mature novel, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (“The Last Day of a Condemned Man”). The story expressed Hugo’s negative feelings toward the death penalty in France. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) praised the book as “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” The story also influenced British writers, such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Victor Hugo in 1829, lithograph by Achille Devéria

By the late 1820s, Hugo had a reputation as the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. Several plays boosted his popularity and, in 1831, he published the hugely successful Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”). Set in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI (1423-83), the story focuses on the deformed character Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the Catholic cathedral. The novel prompted the City of Paris to repair the neglected Cathedral of Notre-Dame and appreciate the other pre-Renaissance buildings in the city.

Whilst Hugo experienced success in his career, his family life suffered. Both he and his wife conducted affairs, although they continued to live with each other and never divorced. Between 1830 and 1837, Adèle had a rendezvous with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a French critic and friend of the Hugo family. Possibly in retaliation, Hugo began seeing the French actress Juliette Drouet (1806-83) in 1833. As well as his mistress, Drouet acted as Hugo’s secretary and travelling companion. It is evident from letters that Drouet devoted her life to Hugo, but he did not treat her with similar respect.

Hugo’s celebrity status earned him friendships in many circles, including amongst composers and musicians. Hector Berlioz (1803-69) and Franz Liszt (1811-86) were among his closest companions and the latter regularly played for Hugo in private concerts. Liszt also taught Hugo to play his favourite piece by Beethoven (1770-1827) on the piano, albeit with only one finger. Another musical friend, Louise Bertin (1805-77) based an opera on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de ParisLa Esmeralda premiered in 1836 but closed after its fifth performance. Despite the flop, Hugo’s various works have inspired thousands of musical compositions, including over 100 operas. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Rigoletto, for example, is based on Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) based La Gioconda on the historical work Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

As well as writing for pleasure, Hugo used his skills to tackle political issues. He joined the Académie française in 1841, but briefly withdrew from the scene in 1843 following the death of his eldest daughter. At just 19 years old, Léopoldine drowned in the Seine after a boat overturned, leaving her father devastated. He did not learn of her death straight away because he was travelling in the South of France. The first he knew of the incident was in a newspaper that he read while sitting in a cafe. He expressed his grief through poetry and used his daughter as the subject of many of his future works.

Hugo returned to the political scene in 1845 when King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) nominated him for the Higher Chamber as a pair de France (Peerage of France). He took the opportunity to speak out against social injustices and the death penalty. His strong opinions were known across Europe, especially after joining the National Assembly in 1849. Around the same time, he began an affair with the author Léonie d’Aunet (1820-79), which lasted approximately seven years. Due to his peerage, Hugo avoided punishment for his adultery. Unfortunately, d’Aunet faced two months in prison and a further six in a convent. Hugo promised to support her financially for the rest of her life, but he continued to conduct affairs with other women. 

When Napoleon III (1808-73) seized power in 1851, Hugo openly called him a traitor for his anti-parliamentary ideas. As a result, Hugo gained many enemies, prompting him to flee to Belgium and then the Bailiwick of Jersey, the largest Channel Island. Hugo’s politics caused problems in Jersey, most notably his support for an anti-Queen Victoria newspaper. In 1855, Jersey expelled Hugo from the island, and Hugo spent the next 15 years in exile on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. His family joined him the following year at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard (1862)

While in exile, Hugo continued to attack Napoleon through political pamphlets, such as Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime. France banned these works, but many copies found their way into the country, smuggled in bales of hay and tins of sardines. Hugo also produced three poetry collections while on the island, but his most notable work from the period is his novel, Les Misérables. Although published in 1862, Hugo started planning the story as early as the 1830s.

“My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.”

Victor Hugo, 23rd March 1862

The inspiration for the main character in Les Misérables came from an incident Hugo witnessed in 1829. Hugo saw a policeman arrest a man for stealing a loaf of bread. At the start of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread. Hugo also took inspiration from the ex-convict Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1557) for Valjean’s character. Vidocq’s criminal actions had landed him in prison, but on his release, he changed his ways. Vidocq became the father of modern criminology and was also the world’s first private detective.

Hugo’s diaries record many scenes that he later wrote into Les Misérables, including the attempted arrest of a prostitute. Hugo stepped in to defend the girl and recorded his speech in his diary, which, in turn, made it into his novel. This scene inspired the character Fantine, whose only means of earning money to look after her daughter Cosette was prostitution. Many real-life figures Hugo met or observed appear in the story. Examples include a street urchin (Gavroche) and French republican students fighting during the 1848 Paris insurrection (Enjolras and Les Amis de l’ABC). 

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables as though he is narrating the story rather than a character. He includes factual information to make the story seem less fictional, often referring to recent events. At one point, he even addresses the reader: “The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself…” Hugo also hid personal information in the novel. Examples include, the date his parents conceived him for Jean Valjean’s prison number “24601” and the date of (spoiler alert) Marius and Cosette’s wedding night is 16th February 1833, the same day Hugo first met his mistress Juliette Drouet. 

Due to his popularity as a poet, many people had high expectations for Hugo’s forthcoming novel. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarising the story before its publication. Instead, he asked them to focus on his past successes as a means of publicity. For example “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Misérables.” Rather than printing the entire novel, the publishers released Les Misérables in five volumes, the first of which they released in Brussels on 30th March 1862. The second volume appeared the following day, but sales of the remaining volumes did not start until 15th May.

Compared to Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s new novel received a lot of criticism. Many found the subject matter immoral, artificial and disappointing. Some people expressed contempt about Hugo’s support of revolutionaries. On the other hand, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) praised Hugo for drawing attention to social problems of the time. Despite the initial criticisms, Les Misérables sold well and remains a popular book today. During the same year of its publication, copies appeared in other languages, including Italian, Greek and Portuguese. Before long, people all over the continent knew the story.

Les Mis Poster

Since its publication, Les Misérables has been adapted for eight films, a radio production, three television programmes and an anime series. Of course, the most famous adaptation is the 1980 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b.1944) and Alain Boublil (b.1941). Although originally performed in French, Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the West End, running continuously since October 1985.

After the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo turned his attention to other social matters, particularly slavery. Although he believed colonialism would help to civilise “barbaric” nations, he called for an end to the slave trade.

“Only one slave on Earth is enough to dishonour the freedom of all men. So the abolition of slavery is, at this hour, the supreme goal of the thinkers.”

Victor Hugo, 17th January 1862

As well as campaigning against slavery, Hugo called for the abolition of the death penalty. Before his exile, Hugo declared “You have overthrown the throne… Now overthrow the scaffold.” Whilst he successfully influenced Geneva, Portugal and Colombia, he had little impact on the French government. In 1859, Napoleon III granted amnesty to all political exiles, but Hugo refused to return to Paris until Napoleon fell from power in 1870.

Shortly after his return to the French capital, the Siege of Paris began. This resulted in the capture of the city by Prussian forces. During this time, Parisians, including Hugo, were reduced to “eating the unknown” meat supplied by the Paris Zoo. Following the siege, Hugo temporarily moved to Brussels where he observed the goings-on in Paris through newspapers. Between March and May 1871, radical socialists created a short-lived revolutionary government. Writing for the Belgian newspaper l’Indépendance, Hugo expressed his support for the rebels, which angered many people. That evening, a mob of sixty men attempted to break into Hugo’s home, shouting “Death to Victor Hugo! Hang him! Death to the scoundrel!”

In 1872, Hugo attempted to encourage Parisians to re-elect him to the National Assembly, stating in his diary, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Despite people hailing Hugo as a national hero, he lost his bid. Nonetheless, he continued to express his views, prophesying that by the 20th century there would be no more war, no death penalty and no hatred. He believed Europe should unite as the “United States of Europe” to make the continent a peaceful place.

Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris

Victor Hugo’s health started to go downhill from the mid-1870s after he suffered a mini-stroke. By this time, his wife Adèle had died, and his sons passed away soon afterwards. His remaining daughter Adèle lived in an insane asylum, so it fell to Hugo’s mistress Juliette Drouet to care for him. In 1878, Hugo suffered another mild stroke, yet he continued to inspire the people of Paris. For his 80th birthday, the city presented him with a Sèvres vase, an item traditionally reserved for sovereigns. Following this honour, the longest parade in French history took place, lasting 6 hours. Hugo watched the paraders from his house on the Avenue d’Eylau, soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo.

In 1883, Juliette Drouet passed away. Although they lived as lovers since the death of Hugo’s wife, they never married. On 22nd May 1885, at the age of 83, Victor Hugo breathed his last after suffering from pneumonia. The whole of France mourned his death and, although he requested a paupers funeral, he received a state funeral attended by over two million people and his final written words, “To love is to act”, became immortalised. His body rests in the Panthéon along with the writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-70).

“I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations from all Churches. I demand a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”

The Will of Victor Hugo
Town with Tumbledown Bridge, Victor Hugo, 1847

After his death, it came to light that Hugo drew and painted as a hobby. He produced over 4000 drawings but never revealed them to the public for fear they would detract from his literary work. His family and close friends knew about his artistic skills and often received handmade cards from the author, particularly during his exile. A few painters of the time tried to encourage Hugo to seriously consider working as a professional artist, including Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who believed Hugo had the potential to outshine the artists of their century. Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) also admired Hugo’s work.

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin

Hugo’s legacy lives on in many ways, not just through the award-winning musical Les Misérables. In Guernsey, Jean Boucher (1870-1939) erected a sculpture of the author to commemorate his stay on the island. Several shops and cafes in Paris honour Hugo’s name, as does the school Lycée Victor Hugo, founded in the town of his birth. Hugo’s fame also spread across to America where he is remembered by street names in Quebec and San Francisco, and a city in Kansas. In 1929, the Vietnamese religion of Cao Đài venerated Hugo as a saint. 

Who is Victor Hugo? Most people answer “the author of Les Misérables“, but his biography proves this is just one of his many achievements. Victor Hugo was a poet, novelist, dramatist, politician, peer of France, drawer and painter. He has hundreds of works to his name and, in France, he is remembered for his radical thinking and opinions. As the crowds at his funeral show, Victor Hugo had many fans and his greatest works will live on through modern adaptations forevermore.

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Super Troupers

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Those lucky enough to visit the O2 in London before the outbreak of COVID-19 had the opportunity to visit ABBA: Super Troupers The Exhibition about the chart-topping Swedish pop sensation ABBA. A 14,000 square foot immersive experience charted their music, lyrics, creative process and influence from their small beginnings to their meteoric rise to fame. Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid (“Frida”) Lyngstad’s lives were also brought to the fore, revealing their personal journeys leading to the success of ABBA.

ABBA soared to fame after they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and continued to top the charts until 1982. To date, the supergroup has sold an estimated 380 million records, making them one of the best-selling artists of all time. Made up of the first letters of their first names, ABBA is one of the most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music.

Benny Andersson

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Göran Bror Benny Andersson was born in Stockholm on 16th December 1946. His love of music came from his father Gösta (1912-73) and his grandfather Efraim, who taught Benny how to play the accordion at the age of six. He grew up surrounded by Swedish folk music and schlager – a happy-go-lucky style of music in Europe.

At the age of 10, Benny taught himself how to play the piano and by 15, he was performing in youth clubs. Benny’s first girlfriend Christina Grönvall was also musical and they joined Elverkets Spelmanslag (The Electricity Board Folk Music Group) in 1964. Christina and Benny had two children, Peter (1963) and Heléne (1965), however, they never married and went their separate ways in 1966.

Towards the end of 1964, Benny joined the Swedish rock group Hep Stars as a keyboardist. The band mostly played covers of popular international songs, however, he also began writing his own material. Hep Stars became the most celebrated Swedish pop band of the 1960s and Benny gained many fans as a teen idol.

In 1966, Benny met Björn Ulvaeus and they began collaborating on songwriting. Their first was titled Isn’t It Easy To Say, which was recorded by the Hep Stars. Benny also worked with the Swedish songwriter Lasse Berghagen (b.1945), including Hej, Clown, which he submitted to the 1969 Melodifestivalen – the competition to determine the Swedish Eurovision Song – and finished in second place. At the Melodifestivalen, Benny met vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad with whom he became a couple.

Björn Ulvaeus

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Björn Kristian Ulvaeus was born in Gothenburg on 25th April 1945, although he moved to Västervik when he was six. Björn originally contemplated a career in business and law, studying at Lund University after undertaking his compulsory military service.

From 1961, Björn was a member of the Hootenanny Singers, a Swedish folk-schlager band, which gained enormous popularity in Sweden. While touring with the band, Björn met the Hep Stars and struck up a friendship with the keyboardist, Benny Andersson. The two shared a passion for music and began helping out in the recording studios of each band. This led to many songwriting collaborations.

In 1969, Björn took part in a special schlager show for television, which is where he met eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter Agnetha Fältskog, who soon became his wife. Meanwhile, Björn continued to record and tour with the Hootenanny Singers as well as working for the Polar Record Company with Benny. They wrote several records, including the single She’s My Kind of Girl, which they released as a duo in 1970.

Björn and Benny also produced a cover of Omkring Tiggarn Från Luossa, which put the Hootenanny Singers in the Swedish radio charts for 52 consecutive weeks.

Agneta Fältskog

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Agneta Åse Fältskog was born in Jönköping on 5th April 1950. Although her father Knut Ingvar (1922-95) was a department store manager, he held great interest in music and show business. This influenced Agneta, who wrote her first song at the age of six: Två små troll (Two Little Trolls). At 8, Agneta began piano lessons and joined her local church choir.

Having left school at 15, Agneta went on to develop her musical career. She joined a local dance band for a couple of years, however, it was the song Jag var så kär (I Was So in Love) that Agneta wrote after breaking up with a boyfriend that got her noticed. Retired rock and roll musician Karl Gerhard Lundkvist offered Agneta a recording contract at Cupol Records, which she readily accepted. Jag var så kär went on to sell more than 80,000 copies.

Throughout the 1960s, Agneta wrote and released many songs, becoming one of Sweden’s most popular artists. Her fiancé Dieter Zimmerman, a German producer, encouraged her to move to Germany where he promised she would achieve success. Unfortunately, Agneta did not get on with the demands of the German producers and returned to Sweden after breaking off her relationship with Zimmerman.

In 1972, Agneta was chosen to portray Mary Magdalene in the Swedish production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (b.1948) Jesus Christ Superstar. By this point, she had met and married Björn Ulvaeus and in 1973, had her first child Linda Elin Ulvaeus. Their son, Peter Christian Ulvaeus, was born in 1977.

Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad

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Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss, Countess of Plauen (née Lyngstad) was born on 15th November 1945 in Bjørkåsen, Norway, the only member of ABBA born outside of Sweden. Her German father, Alfred Haase (1919-2009) had been a sergeant in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, and fearing repercussions, Frida’s grandmother took her to Sweden in 1947. Although Frida remained close with her family, she was led to believe her father had died during the war.

Frida showed musical talent from a young age, encouraged by her grandmother who frequently sang old Norwegian songs to her as a young child. At school, Frida was asked to sing in front of her class and soon became known in the neighbourhood for her beautiful voice. At the age of 13, Frida became a schlager singer with the Evald Ek’s Orchestra.

“It was hard to believe, such a young person could sing that well. She was so easy to rehearse with and she was never shy onstage. The only thing I taught her was to sing out. In those days, she had a tendency of holding back her voice a little.”
– Evald Ek

In 1964 at the age of 18, Frida married Ragnar Fredriksson with whom she had two children: Hans Ragnar (b.1963) and Ann Lise-Lotte (1967-98). Frida sang with her husband in the Gunnar Sandevarn Trio and her own band, the Anni-Frid Four, however, the couple separated in 1968.

In 1967, Frida won the Swedish national talent competition, “New Faces”, which exposed her to a much wider audience. The following year, she met Agnetha Fältskog when she performed on Studio 8 and in 1969, met Benny Andersson at the Melodifestivalen, where she performed the song Härlig är vår jord (Our Earth Is Wonderful).

Frida’s first solo album Frida was produced by Benny, who was her fiancé at the time. The album met with considerable praise for her versatile voice. Through her relationship to Benny, who she eventually married in 1976, Frida became good friends with Agnetha and Björn Ulvaeus, which led to the formation of ABBA in 1972.

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Before ABBA was officially formed, the two couples first combined their musical talents when they went on a joint holiday to Cyprus in 1970. Having been spotted singing on the beach together, the four ended up performing an improvised concert in front of the United Nations soldiers on the island. At this time, Benny and Björn were already in the process of recording their first album and invited Agneta and Frida to provide backing vocals on a few of the tracks. Their first “hit” as a quartet was Hej, gamle man about an elderly Salvation Army soldier, which reached number five in the charts.

As time went on, Frida and Agneta went from being backing singers to more prominent vocals. By 1971, they were regularly performing together as a quartet in Swedish folkparks. Meanwhile, the Swedish music manager Stig Anderson (1931-97) told Björn and Benny, “One day the pair of you will write a song that becomes a worldwide hit.” Anderson was determined to establish his record company Polar Music in the mainstream international market and believed working with Björn and Benny would be his breakthrough.

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Stig Anderson met Björn when he began managing Hootenanny Singers in 1961. When Björn and Benny decided to pair up, Anderson was keen to manage them as well. Soon, he began managing Agnetha and Frida before eventually becoming the manager of ABBA. Anderson helped write some of ABBA’s earliest music and was often referred to as the fifth member of the band.

Although Agneta and Frida were becoming more prominent in Björn and Benny’s songs, it was not until June 1972 when they were officially considered to be a quartet. Their first single People Need Love was released under the name Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Despite only reaching 17 in the charts, Stig Anderson was convinced they would grow to be a big success.

In 1973, Anderson persuaded the band to enter Melodifestivalen with the song Ring Ring. The lyrics were originally Swedish, however, Anderson had them translated to English in the hopes it would become popular in the UK and USA. Ring Ring came third in the competition, therefore, they were not chosen to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest. Agneta would not have been able to perform anyway, since she was heavily pregnant with her daughter Linda. For performances, she was temporarily replaced by Inger Brundin, a friend of Frida.

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Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid was a bit of a mouthful to say when referring to the band, so Stig Anderson began referring to them as ABBA, an acronym for Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. The group decided to officially rename themselves ABBA in 1973, however, they had to get permission from the Swedish company Abba Seafood AB. The company responded, “O.K., as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing.”

The ABBA logo was designed by Rune Söderqvist (1935-2014), who went on to create most of the band’s album sleeves. The logo first appeared in 1976 and was henceforth used for all future albums. The ambigram, as it is called because it can be read in more than one direction, contains a reversed letter B to make it a “mirror-image”. This was also a representation of the two couples in the band: Agneta and Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid.

Although Ring Ring failed to get ABBA to the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, Stig Anderson was determined to enter the band the following year. On 9th February 1974, ABBA performed the song Waterloo in Swedish at the Melodifestivalen and won the hearts of the nation and a position in Eurovision. On 6th April 1974, ABBA performed Waterloo, this time in English, at the 19th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Brighton on the south coast of the United Kingdom. With 24 points, ABBA became Sweden’s first-ever winners of the competition, seven points above Italy in second place.

Waterloo became popular throughout Europe, topping the charts in both the United Kingdom and West Germany – ironically, the UK did not give Sweden any points during the competition, nor did Greece, Monaco, Belgium and Italy. Even the United States was enthralled by ABBA, with Waterloo reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. ABBA’s next single Honey, Honey, however, did not do so well and people began to speculate that the group would be a one-hit-wonder.

From November 1974, ABBA embarked on a tour of Europe, starting with Denmark, West Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, many of their concerts were cancelled due to lack of demand. Things improved when the band travelled through Scandinavia. Most of their concerts in Sweden and Finland were sold out with audiences reaching over 19,000.

In 1975, a new single SOS put ABBA back in the UK charts and their album of the same name saw success in Germany and Australia. The single even received attention in the USA where it peaked at number 10. The song that solidified their success in Europe was Mamma Mia, a number one record in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. In 1976, their new single Fernando went to number-one in at least thirteen countries and stayed in the charts for a record 40 weeks. This record was not beaten until 2017 when it was overtaken by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.

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ABBA eventually reached number-one in the USA with Europop song Dancing Queen, released in August 1976. The song was written by Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson during the summer of 1975 and when Frida first heard it she allegedly cried. “I found the song so beautiful. It’s one of those songs that goes straight to your heart.”

Speaking about the single, Agnetha said, “It’s often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was ‘Dancing Queen.’ We all knew it was going to be massive.” Years later, Dancing Queen is still an internationally popular song. In 2000, it came fourth in Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Number One Singles and in 2015, Dancing Queen was inducted into the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.

“Dancing Queen is beautifully produced: catchy and euphoric, the perfect backdrop for a song that encapsulates the carefree bliss of youth.”
– Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 2016

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ABBA self wrote an operetta titled The Girl with the Golden Hair, which they performed during what they considered to be their first major tour. The tour began in Oslo, Norway in January 1977 followed by Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Essen, Hanover and Hamburg. The European leg of the tour ended in the United Kingdom with concerts in Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and London.

Following the success in Europe, the tour continued in Australia with eleven concerts. This leg of the tour was captured on film by Swedish director Lesse Hallström (b.1946), who directed the majority of ABBA’s music videos. The clips from the tour were pieced together to create a drama-documentary called ABBA: The Movie. Half fiction and half reality, the film follows a Radio DJ across Australia in an attempt to get an in-depth interview with the group. With many missed chances and several run-ins with the band’s protective bodyguard, the DJ eventually gets his interview after a chance encounter in a hotel lift.

By 1978, ABBA was one of the biggest bands in the world and began to plan their first tour of North America. Unfortunately, the pressure that came with fame had an adverse effect on Björn and Agnetha’s relationship and they announced they were getting divorced at the beginning of 1979. Nonetheless, the band were determined not to let it affect their band’s future, however, Björn and Benny had to secretly travel to the Bahamas to concentrate on their songwriting and escape the press.

ABBA travelled to the USA where they released their sixth studio album, Voulez-Vous, in April 1979. Popular songs from the album include Chiquitita, Does Your Mother Know and I Have a Dream. The tour of North America officially began on 13th September 1979 with a full house at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Canada.

“The voices of the band, Agnetha’s high sauciness combined with round, rich lower tones of Anni-Frid, were excellent…Technically perfect, melodically correct and always in perfect pitch…The soft lower voice of Anni-Frid and the high, edgy vocals of Agnetha were stunning”
Edmonton Journal.

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ABBA at Edmonton, Canada, 1979

After four sold-out concerts in Canada, the band performed a further 17 in the United States. The final show, due to be held in Washington DC, was unfortunately cancelled after a flight from Boston in severe weather conditions left Agnetha emotionally distressed. Agnetha had a fear of flying, which is why the band only managed a couple of tours outside of Europe.

After a long flight home, ABBA continued their tour with twenty-three sold-out gigs in Europe, six of which were held at the Wembley Arena in London. The following year, Agnetha braved the flight to Japan where they performed eleven concerts. This trip marked the end of their foreign adventures.

In July 1980, ABBA released the single The Winner Takes it All and found themselves back at the top of the UK charts. Although the lyrics are about a divorce, the band claimed it was fiction and not connected to Björn and Agnetha’s divorce. “One thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.” (Björn) In 1999, The Winner Takes it All was voted Britain’s favourite ABBA song and, in 2006, Britain’s favourite breakup song.

Super Trouper, another UK number-one, was released towards the end of 1980. Originally, it was going to be called Blinka Lilla Stjärna (Twinkle Little Star, in Swedish), however, the name was changed to reference a brand of spotlights used in stadiums called Super Trouper. The song became ABBA’s ninth number one in the UK, putting them in fourth place for the most UK chart-toppers in history. At the top were The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. ABBA remained in fourth until Madonna released her tenth number-one single in 2000.

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ABBA during the TV special Dick Cavett Meets ABBA in April 1981

The year 1981 was a mix of good and bad for the members of ABBA. In January, Björn married Lena Källersjö and their manager, Stig Anderson, celebrated his 50th birthday. In February, however, Benny and Frida announced their divorce. They admitted their relationship had been crumbling for years and Benny had met another woman, Mona Nörklit, whom he married later that year.

In April, ABBA returned to the United States for a special interview with the US talk show host Dick Cavett (b.1936). This coincided with the release of their final studio album The Visitors. According to Björn, the tracks on the album referred to current and personal affairs, including the threat of war, failed relationships and ageing. One track, When All is Said and Done, fittingly became ABBA’s final Top 40 hit.

ABBA did not know at the time that The Visitors would be their final studio album. At the beginning of 1982, they were busy writing songs and planning a tour, however, by the summer, they had only recorded three songs. Realising they were struggling, ABBA decided to take a break from songwriting and produce a special album of their existing singles in time for Christmas. The album was titled The Singles: The First Ten Years and went to number one in the UK and Belgium.

In November 1982, ABBA travelled to West Germany and the UK to promote The Singles. On 11th December, they appeared through a live link on Noel Edmonds’ The Late, Late Breakfast Show, for what ended up being their last performance together. ABBA never officially announced the end of their group but decided amongst themselves to have a break. Fans have hoped ever since that ABBA would reunite but Björn crushed those dreams in 2008 saying, “We will never appear on stage again … There is simply no motivation to re-group. Money is not a factor and we would like people to remember us as we were. Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.”

Despite ABBA dissolving, Björn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha’s careers were far from over.

Benny Andersson

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Benny and Björn continued writing music despite no longer performing themselves. Together, they collaborated with the lyricist Tim Rice (b.1944) on their first stage musical Chess. The concept album was released in October 1984 and the track I Know Him So Well, sung by Elaine Paige (b.1948) and Barbara Dickson (b.1947), shot to number one in the UK. The show eventually opened in May 1986 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London.

In 1985, Benny began working as the producer of Genesis, a brother-sister pop duo from Sweden. Many of their songs were written by Benny and Björn, including the track Mio My Mio, which was used in the film Mio in the Land of Faraway based on a book by Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002).

Benny began writing and performing music alone, releasing his first solo album in 1987. The majority of the music was performed by Benny on his accordion. Two years later, he released a second solo album. At the same time, Benny continued to write music for other artists and composed the introduction melody for the 1992 European football championship.

Björn and Benny collaborated on another stage musical during the 1990s, resulting in the award-winning Mamma Mia! Based around twenty-four of ABBA’s songs. Success continued with the film version in 2008. Mamma Mia! The Movie is currently the best selling film musical of all time and the biggest-selling DVD ever in the UK.

Today, Benny performs with his own band, Benny Anderssons Orkester (Benny Andersson’s orchestra). The band is made up of sixteen musicians and has released five albums so far. Benny’s son Ludvig (b.1982) has followed in his father’s footsteps by forming his own band, Atlas.

Björn Ulvaeus

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Björn married music journalist Lena Källersjö in January 1981, towards the end of his career with ABBA. The couple have two children, Emma Eleonora (b.1982) and Anna Linnea (1986). Emma was born around the time Björn and Benny were working on the musical Chess, however, Anna was born after the family had moved to the United Kingdom, where they remained until 1990. Björn and his wife currently live in Stockholm.

Whilst Björn was in the UK, he set up an IT business with his brother. Later, he became an owner of NoteHeads, a Swedish online music composition company. Back in Sweden, Björn began working with Benny on the production of Mamma Mia!

Björn is a member of Humanisterna, a nonprofit organisation working for a secular society and human rights. He is a “cash-free campaigner” and has reportedly lived without using any physical money for over half a decade.

Today, Björn continues to write music and has been awarded The Special International Ivor Novello Award alongside Benny.

Agnetha Fältskog

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Only a year after ABBA disbanded, Agnetha released her first post-ABBA solo album. Wrap Your Arms Around Me immediately went to number one in the charts in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Denmark. Her second album was less successful, however, in 1987, Agnetha released the album Kom följ med i vår karusell (Come Join Us On Our Carousel) with her son Christian and was nominated for the Swedish music prize Grammis.

In 1987, Agnetha travelled to California to record her fourth studio album, however, decided to have a hiatus from recording after its release. For the next few years, she devoted much of her time to astrology, yoga and horse riding. In 1990, she married a Swedish surgeon, Tomas Sonnenfeld, but they divorced three years later.

The mid-1990s were a difficult period for Agnetha. In 1994 her mother committed suicide by jumping from a balcony and, the following year, her father died. A brief relationship with a Dutch forklift worker, Gert van der Graaf, ended in a court restraining order after he continued to stalk her long after the relationship ended.

Agnetha returned to music in 2004 with a new album called My Colouring Book. The majority of the tracks were covers of songs from the 1960s, however, she managed to top the charts in Sweden. Reviews in British newspapers suggested that “time hasn’t diminished her perfect voice,” (The Observer) and “Agnetha Fältskog has a vulnerability that gets under the skin of a song.” (The Guardian)

Agnetha’s latest album, A, was released in 2013 and includes a duet with Gary Barlow (b.1971). Over 600,000 copies were sold in the first two months after the release and reached number six in the UK charts. The same year, Agnetha was awarded the SKAP 2013 Kai Gullmar Memorial Award and performed live for the first time in 25 years at the BBC Children in Need Rocks 2013 concert in London.

The successes Agnetha has achieved are remarkable not just for her talent but because of her fight against hidden mental health issues. Her aviophobia made it difficult to tour with ABBA and she would always travel by bus when she could. Unfortunately, experiencing a bus accident on a Swedish motorway in 1983 put her off that mode of transport, too.

Other things Agnetha struggled with was stage fright, fear of crowds, fear of open space and fear of heights – all things that made being a pop superstar very difficult. Agnetha needed therapy following her split from Björn and the deaths of her parents worsened her depression.

Today, Agnetha lives with her son, near Stockholm and her daughter lives nearby.

Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss

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Before ABBA had split up, Frida was already working on her first post-ABBA solo album. Produced by Phil Collins (b.1951), the music had a rockier tone and was a success across Europe and the United States.

Frida continued releasing successful albums until 2005 when she decided to have a hiatus from music. By 2010, however, she was producing music again.

In 2013, Frida helped organise the opening of ABBA: The Museum in Stockholm, however, she reportedly stated she wanted to “let ABBA rest”, crushing any hopes of a reunion.

After ABBA split up, Frida moved to London before relocating to Switzerland with her new boyfriend, Prince Heinrich Ruzzo of Reuss, Count of Plauen (1950–1999), who she eventually married in 1992. In 1988, Frida became a grandmother for the first time when her daughter Ann Lise-Lotte gave birth to Jonathan Casper. Sadly, Ann died in 1998 from fatal injuries after a car crash. Frida’s husband died the following year.

Today, Frida lives in Sweden with her current boyfriend Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden (b.1955), a descendant of the founder of WHSmith. Frida is involved with many charities and environmental issues.

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Posing together with the actors from the motion picture Mamma Mia! The Movie on 4 July 2008

Despite having split nearly forty years ago, ABBA is still reeling in the success of their many albums and Mamma Mia! In 2017, a blue plaque was erected outside Brighton Dome to commemorate their 1974 Eurovision win.

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The last public appearance of all four members of ABBA took place on 20th January 2016 at Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm. A few months later, it was revealed the band had reunited to work on a digital entertainment experience. The idea involves life-like avatars or Abbatars that will “perform” their songs. In 2019, Björn revealed they had written five new songs that will feature the Abbatars, due to be released in 2020.

Now, all we can do is wait and see what ABBA do next.


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Discover a Whole New World …

aladdin-the-musical-1From Broadway to the West End, Disney’s Musical Comedy Aladdin has been taking audiences on journeys to a whole new world for the past four years. Premiering on 26th February 2014 at the New Amsterdam Theatre in Manhatten, Aladdin soon flew to London in 2016, landing at the Prince Edward Theatre, taking the place of the successful Miss Saigon.

Based on the Number One Movie of the Year 1992, Aladdin brings to the stage some of the most loved Disney characters and songs for everyone, young and old, to enjoy. With magic tricks, pyrotechnics and lots of dancing, it is an experience unlike any musical production in the West End so far.

The well-known tale tells the story of a poor young man living on the streets of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah who is granted three wishes from a genie in a lamp, which he uses to win the heart of the princess Jasmine and defeat the evil Grand Vizier. Featuring most of the scenes from the 90-minute animated film, the musical contains new songs and characters, extending the performance by an additional 40-minutes.

Loosely based on the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin, played by Matthew Croke, the co-principal of RMC Academy of Theatre Performance in Sheffield, is a street urchin who first meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine when he meets her in the marketplace. Running away from the palace and her father’s attempts to find her a suitor, Jasmine is disguised as an ordinary woman and Aladdin has no idea who she really is, although he soon finds out. Arrested by the Royal Guard for supposedly kidnapping the princess, Aladdin is rescued by the sultan’s Grand Vizier who, it turns out, has an evil ulterior motive.

Jafar, the Grand Vizier, is an evil, determined man who wants to become sultan and ruler of the city of Agrabah, but he can only achieve this with the help of a magic lamp. Although he knows the lamp is hidden in the Cave of Wonders, only a “diamond in the rough” can access it, and that diamond turns out to be Aladdin. The street urchin must enter the cave and take the lamp without touching anything else, however, a shiny ruby catches Aladdin’s eye. A single touch causes the cave entrance to collapse leaving Aladdin trapped inside.

 

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Abu

For the majority of the first half, the storyline has stayed almost the same as the film version, with the addition of a few new characters. Those who have seen the animation will recall that Aladdin had a kleptomaniac pet monkey named Abu, however, this was not possible on stage. Instead, Aladdin has three friends, Babkak, Kassim and Omar, who sing and dance with him in the marketplace as well as getting into all sorts of trouble. Although these are never seen before characters, they were originally written for the film but never made the final cut. Reintroducing them into the story allowed Howard Ashman’s (1950-1991) upbeat song Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim to be heard for the first time. This is a great tribute to the lyricist who died shortly before the release of the film to which he had devoted so much time.

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Iago and Jafar

Another animal in the 1992 version of Aladdin was Iago, the sultan’s sarcastic, rude parrot who teamed up with the evil Jafar. Likewise to Abu, it was not possible to have a talking animal on stage, so Iago became a man. Working as Jafar’s personal assistant, Iago’s character has a comedic effect with his disrespectful comments and over-the-top grovelling.

Thankfully, the most popular character in Aladdin, and most vital to the plot, receives the portrayal he deserves with fantastic songs, costumes and stage presence. It was going to be difficult to beat Robin William’s (1951-2014) character Genie of the Lamp but award-winning Trevor Dion Nicholas rose to the challenge, not only performing in the original Broadway production but making his debut in the West End, too.

By the end of the Act One, Aladdin has rubbed the lamp, met Genie and discovered he can be granted three wishes. This culminates in the popular song Friend Like Me, also written by Ashman, however, instead of performing the 2-minute film version verbatim, the producers extended it to last an impressive 8-minutes. Full of various forms of dancing and style of music, Friend Like Me pays tribute to other Disney productions, such as The Little Mermaid, and contains a tap dancing element in recognition of the show 42nd Street. Including magic tricks worthy of being in any magician’s repertoire, the final number of the act is thoroughly entertaining causing the audience to fall about laughing several times and wish for more.

 

Act two begins with the first of Aladdin’s wishes: to be a prince so that he can try to persuade Jasmine to marry him – cue the lengthy, amusing number, Prince Ali. This leads on to the awe-inspiring flying carpet scene where Aladdin takes Jasmine to see the world.  Whilst up in the air on a carpet held up either with invisible strings or real magic, the pair sing the most famous song from the film A Whole New World. Written by award-winning lyricist Sir Tim Rice (b1944), the romantic song is a stark contrast to the upbeat, fast numbers that preceded it, the only exception being Proud of Your Boy, which was cut from the original screenplay.

It does not take long for Aladdin to realise that pretending to be someone he is not causes more problem than it solves. Jasmine has recognised him from the marketplace but believes he is a prince. On top of that, Jafar and Iago trick Aladdin into getting arrested and thrown into the dungeons. Thankfully, Genie releases him with the use of a second wish, but what should he do with his third wish? Aladdin had initially promised Genie he would release him from his lamp but he also needs help rectifying the situation his first wish got him into.

Before he has a chance to decide, Jafar gets his hand on the lamp and wishes to become sultan. With everyone in the palace under his control, the new sultan wishes for more power and becomes a sorcerer. However, Jafar’s greed for strength and influence results in his downfall. Aladdin, with no help other than his own intelligence, convinces Jafar to wish to be an all-powerful genie, thus tying him to a lamp, cursed to spend the rest of his days granting wishes.

Although he could still wish for the princess’ hand in marriage, Aladdin chooses to set Genie free. Moved by his actions, the sultan (now restored to his rightful position) declares Princess Jasmine may marry whoever she pleases, be he royalty or commoner. So, Aladdin gets his other wish after all!

 

It would not be Disney without a happily-ever-after ending, however, Aladdin is full of hidden messages and morals, which makes the ending even better. Having three wishes fulfilled (as long as they do not involve love or death, Genie is banned from granting those type) seems like a fantastic opportunity, however, it also causes unforeseen problems. Aladdin thought to become a prince would improve his life and win him the heart of Jasmine, instead, he ends up insulting the princess and landing himself in prison.

Likewise, Jafar thought having his wishes granted would lead him to be the most powerful man in the kingdom. The power hungry villain was blinded by his greed and easily tricked into wishing to be a genie and sealing his fate, literally, in a lamp. With great power comes great responsibility, the obligation to grant everyone else three wishes!

As both Jafar and Aladdin discover, attempting to be someone you are not is not the right way to go about things. Jasmine loved the street urchin she met in the marketplace, not the arrogant prince who flaunted his wealth. Jafar pretended to be a trustworthy Grand Vizier but eventually received punishment for his wicked ways.

The biggest theme, however, is imprisonment and freedom. Genie, although powerful, is tied to his lamp, destined to do his master’s bidding for the rest of eternity. Jasmine and Aladdin, one rich, one poor, are both limited by their lifestyles. Aladdin is always looked down on for being homeless and a disappointment to his late mother, whereas, Jasmine has no rights as a woman and must do everything her father wishes. The lifting of these restrictions on each of the characters makes the ending all the more perfect.

10795844-1368522398-146359The West End musical Aladdin has only been running in London for two years but if the film is anything to go by, it will be one of the more successful shows in theatres. In 1992, Aladdin was the highest grossing film of the year ($217 million) and won a Grammy for the song A Whole New World. This phenomenal achievement was for an animated movie that only contained six songs, whereas the newer stage version has fourteen.

Disney was fortunate to have the eleven times Grammy Award-winning composer Alan Menken (b1949) on the team to produce both the film score and agree to work on the musical performance two decades later. Along with the lyricist Chad Beguelin, incredible new songs were produced for the stage that made the music much more impressive than in the original film. Of course, Rice’s A Whole New World needed to be kept in the script as well as Howard Ashman’s original songs and a few that never made it into the film. Ashman, who died of complications due to AIDs in 1991 would be proud to know that people are finally hearing more of his great works. Known as “our friend … who gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul …”, the added snippets of songs from A Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are a perfect tribute to him.

 

Of course, the stage musical could not work without the phenomenal set design arranged by a whole team of people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The scenes are truly impressive, not just for the way they look but for the way they function too. Just like the dancers, the sets had to be choreographed to move when they needed in order to transform into a different scene at the given time. During songs, particularly Friend Like Me, the set design is constantly moving as Genie uses his magic. Only the performers get applauded at the end of the show, however, the design team ought to be given greater recognition.

Members of the ensemble, for many of whom Aladdin is their debut West End performance, need to be appreciated too. Whilst they may not be a named character, they play a number of different roles, know most of the songs, learn hundreds of dance steps and are extremely quick at getting changed in and out of various costumes. In essence, these performers are the backbone of the show.

It is safe to say that Aladdin is a must-see show. It may not have the timelessness of other productions such as Les Misérables, but its upbeat, comic value makes it an entertaining, thoroughly enjoyable show. Suitable for all ages, Aladdin is the perfect show to see as a family outing or friends’ get-together, as proved by the rapidly selling tickets.

Tickets are available to purchase from Delfont Mackintosh Theatres at a variety of prices. Book online, by phone or in person at the Prince Edward Theatre in Old Compton Street, London.