Almost a year ago, my friend Michelle asked me if I wanted to travel to Gothenburg to see the musical version of “Utvandrarna”. I replied that I did not even know where I would live then and also “then I am 27” (as if that would change anything really) but I knew that I would come from wherever to see this musical, Kristina från Duvemåla. The world premiere 1995 is one of the things, alongside with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, that make me want to have been born earlier. Because then, I might have had a chance to see the musical with its original cast featuring Swedish national icons Helen Sjöholm and Peter Jöback.
But even this new version with different singers was deeply moving. When the show was over and we walked to the restaurant to have dinner, we were rather quiet. “I think we need some minutes to gather ourselves before we can discuss”, one in our company said.
It is hard to fail when you are working with such excellent material as Moberg’s story and Björn Ulvaues’ and Benny Andersson’s music. I remember how my mother taught me the word congenial and it certainly applies to “Kristina från Duvemåla”. The music doubles and triples all the feelings the story depicts and makes it possible to connect to the emigrants’ fear, hope, desperation, joy and love on a different level. The musical has to leave out parts, of course, but those that it covers are intensified.
Even here, all the words are carefully chosen and in a poetic union of sound and language, a whole world is built up in Gothenburg’s opera house, a venue only metres away from the port through which countless Swedes emigrated to America.
There is one song in the musical that corresponds to the main aria in an opera,”Du måste finnas”, the song I would use if I was a history teacher trying to convey how people in the past felt about faith and God. The song is very much associated with Helen Sjöholm, the singer who sang it when the musical first premiered. Her face is even on the poster –even now in Gothenburg where she is not playing Kristina. It must therefore have been a great challenge to make an own version of this piece and I found that the Swedish-Finnish singer that played Kristina succeeded to vary this grand song and give her touch to it, especially in the angry passages when Kristina in her deepest despair asks God if he exists and why he has abandoned her.
However, the song that made me lose my composure entirely (I never cry at movies or musicals) was another one, “Gold can turn to sand”. I have listened to this song time and again but it almost felt like it was the first time I heard it. In this piece, all the heart-breaking themes come together: the loss of a dear friend, the end of all high hopes they have worked so hard for, the death of two men much too young. Who would not sob when an 18-year-old sings about how they got lost in the desert and how his only friend, “a brother”, died from drinking from a poisened well? (And yes, the two dying ones happened to be my favorite characters as well.)
The events are from more than 150 years ago, the story is 66 years old, the musical turns 20 this year – but the strength and beauty is still there, as one press reviews put it.
As this story is part of American Immigrant History, there is even an English version of it. Many of the songs are excellently translated: Kristina at Carnegie Hall (not available in Germany) and on Spotify. My favorite songs, although all are terrific, are: Path of Leaves and Needles, Where you go I go with you, Down to the Sea, We open up the Gateways, Summer Rose (can’t listen to it because I start crying), Gold can turn to Sand, You have to be there.