Swedish historical musical highlights integration debate

Swedish historical musical highlights integration debate
Integration is one of the most important issues facing the world today. More than 60 million people have been displaced, fleeing war and persecution, and thousands come to Sweden. This autumn a famous musical aims to remind Swedes that they once had to leave their country, too.

The Swedish musical Kristina från Duvemåla (Kristina from Duvemåla), written by the famous men of Abba (Björn Ulveus and Benny Andersson), opened for a new season in Stockholm this weekend. But the show got kick-started last week with a special dress rehearsal including a discussion about integration and what can be done to help refugees.

“We've noticed a change in the public discourse,” says Ulrika Årehed Kågström, General Secretary of the Swedish Red Cross (Röda Korset).

“Recent events have led to the refugee crisis coming very close to home, and many people are touched and want to do something, but they don't always know what to do.”

The musical is based on a series of novels by Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, which tells the tale of a Swedish family in the 1840s. The books (the Utvandrarna series) are some of the most famous in Swedish literature, and the musical has now also become the most famous in Sweden, seen by more than 1 million people.

The young couple in the story, Karl Oskar and Kristina, make the decision to travel to North America after one of their children dies and the rest of the family is starving, struggling to deal with failing harvests year after year.

Several of their friends also flee the country, due to religious persecution or simply seeking a better future where they do not have to slave away working for other people.

They board a ship and spend months at a sea, dealing with lice, violence, and shortage of food onboard, before finally reaching North America.

But they find that life in the US is not easy, and they are looked down upon by many people there as well. Life is a roller-coaster of failure and success, and as soon as they find a new home it is snatched away from them again.

Swedes gather onto tiny boats to cross the Atlantic to a better life. Photo: Mats Bäcker. Kristina från Duvemåla, GöteborgsOperan 2014

“We have seen how the musical can open up people's eyes about what it's like to be forced to leave home, and what it's like to be a new arrival in a country today,” says Björn Ulvaeus, who wrote the lyrics for the play. 

“It wakes empathy and engagement in people. So it feels only natural to work with the Red Cross, which has so many great integration initiatives, and have this meeting.”

Millions of Swedes fled the country at that time, with famine and persecution pushing them away. But less than 200 years later, the story is long forgotten by many. The collaboration of the Charlotta Theatre Company, the Red Cross, and the Blixten & Co media company hopes to change that.

“Many people are surprised and touched when they see the musical,” said Rita de Castro, project leader at the Red Cross.

“'Oh, have Swedes also had to leave home?' they wonder.”

Kristina and Karl Oskar lose a child to starvation and decide to leave Sweden.

She added that having a personal contact, having someone who views you as a complex human individual, is critical to help new refugees integrate into society.

“We are going to show how people can get engaged and how they can invite new families home for dinner, or how they can join a buddy system and become friends with a refugee,” she said.

One of the most famous songs in the musical, “You Have to Be There” (Du måste finnas), highlights the emotional turmoil Kristina goes through when she loses yet another child and begins to doubt the existence of God for the first time. 

“You tore me away from my homeland, God,” she sings at the beginning of the song. “I am a stranger and a refugee, and I accept that as my fate…but now you have taken my child.”

Listen to the song here, with English subtitles:

The musical will be performed at the Cirkus venue on Djurgården in Stockholm, and Cirkus was the meeting place last week for politicians, musicians, and newly-arrived asylum seekers in Sweden, who talked about their experiences and what can be done to help.

“Culture has an incredible ability to create feelings and stories that people can relate to,” Björn Ulvaeus said.

“If we can succeed with this initiative, by making a difference by changing the views of some and getting people to contribute to integration, then we will be happy.”