Q&A with Brian May (Queen guitarist) & Roger Taylor (Queen drummer),
We Will Rock You musical supervisors
INTERVIEWER: I’m just curious. How did this idea come about? I understand Robert De Niro might’ve been the first person to mention it.
ROGER TAYLOR: I think he was involved very early on in the idea of a musical. I think he felt it was something that might be interesting to put a toe in. Brian and myself and our manager, Jim [Beach], had thought for years that it would be an interesting thing to do; just another way to get our music to people.
And we went through a lot of scripts and we decided in the end that we needed to make it more of a mixed comedy with the music.
INTERVIEWER: Brian, I understand you were the person who referred to We Will Rock You as a rock theatrical.
BRIAN MAY: Well, it is a musical, but we came into it as a body of people who really didn’t relate that well to the genre of musical theater. We didn’t want to put on something like My Fair Lady. This is rock and roll and it had to be something very different.
So, we kind of acquainted ourselves with the rules and we gathered together a team around us which was partly built from rock and roll people and partly from theatrical people; it became this great kind of mélange. A little uncomfortable at first, but from that came the strength to create something new. So, we called it a rock theatrical. It’s something which is very rock and roll, very organic, but at the same time has the values of the musical theater, which is that you encapsulate the whole story.
INTERVIEWER: Well, of course Queen was – and is – this sort of enormous cultural phenomenon. How did you take these great songs, which are theatrical in and of themselves, and put it in to this context? I understand that you worked closely with Ben?
BRIAN MAY: Yeah, Ben Elton is the key. We workshopped a couple of ideas and we didn’t like it. We felt uncomfortable because it was autobiographical and we didn’t really feel comfortable with portraying our lives and Freddie’s lives — it just didn’t seem to sit well.
Along came Ben Elton, who’s an incredibly successful writer in England. Ben came up with this idea. He said okay, “this musical is not about the past, it’s not about history, it’s about the future, it’s about the future of kids and how they feel and how they want to express themselves and how they’re looking for that thing which is rock and roll. And that’s the quest of the whole thing.”
Strangely enough, it wasn’t that difficult to put the songs in there because those songs are root bound. A lot of Queen stuff is about finding yourself, finding freedom, breaking away from where you are, breaking into the world. You know “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” “I Want to Break Free.” It’s kind of all there.
INTERVIEWER: Queen had such a distinctive sound. It was not a three-chord rock and roll sound, and you had the voice of Freddie Mercury. And in We Will Rock You, we’re hearing it in all kinds of different voices, not just the two leads, one of whom is a girl. What was it like to adapt the music for different voices?
ROGER TAYLOR: Well, it wasn’t as hard as it might sound. We have a lot of our trademark high harmonies in there, which are very suitable for female voices. And I think the melodies are strong. They’re good tunes, and anybody that can sing, can carry a good tune, you know? So, I think the transition in that sense wasn’t hard. It’s not meant to sound exactly like Queen, but it is meant to put our music over.
INTERVIEWER: Now, you know, a lot of songwriters might be content to just say, “here are the songs; be my guest, go ahead.” But you guys have been so much a part of this. I wonder if you can talk about that aspect of being so involved with each production, which changes apparently in each place.
BRIAN MAY: Yeah, it’s a great thing, because it has not become a rubber stamp. Most musicals, from Les Miserables to all of the American musicals, are moved from city to city, but they are stamped with exactly the same moves, the same way of singing and same way of acting. We Will Rock You has never been that way and we encourage people to bring their own talents in to it and make it what they can make it. There’s a script, obviously, and certain things which need to happen but, within that, there’s a lot of freedom for people to be themselves.
INTERVIEWER: What are you looking for when you’re auditioning musicians and actors?
BRIAN MAY: Well, it’s a big ask really and it was very difficult in the beginning to find people who understood what we were trying to do, because you’re auditioning people who have been brought up in musical theater. They’re taught how to project, how to make each note last the length of the syllable, and it’s very much not what we wanted. We wanted people to be instinctive and to be, in a sense, rock stars. So, they have to be able to act, they have to be convincing, they have to be able to sing. A lot of them have to be able to dance as well. And the final big ask is you have to actually be a rock star!
INTERVIEWER: I saw it five or six years ago. One of the things I loved about it, was it had a slamming band. How involved are you in getting that slamming band together?
ROGER TAYLOR: It’s always been very important to us. If the band’s not right, it’s just not going to work. The band takes a bow at the end of the show. It’s an essential part of the show. So the band’s very important: we insist on a very high level of musicianship in the bands, and that’s why we pay such close attention to it.
BRIAN MAY: The band has to be very, very hot and we personally audition them. It’s become a huge family of musicians, all of whom are great. I love those guitarists who can do stuff that I can’t do! And they evolve and they organically become a band; not just a bunch of musicians in a pit reading dots. I’m incredibly proud of the We Will Rock You bands that we’ve put together so far. We have a great opportunity here to build a band which will tour the States and I already know some of them, which is great.
INTERVIEWER: You guys have this great fan base. How does We Will Rock You play for the Queen fans and how does it play for people who are maybe not Queen fans?
BRIAN MAY: It’s a bit of each really. We were conscious that if we just played to Queen fans, even in England, it would be over in a couple of months. So, by and large, we’re playing to people who are not Queen fans. And they have to be led gradually into what to expect and what they’re going to feel.. The show is funny, so, in a sense, you get the impression it’s very light and maybe inconsequential. But by halfway through the second act, you realize that something has happened, you know you are feeling something which you probably didn’t expect to feel, which is quite an emotional thing. And I see it every time I go and watch the show. You see people suddenly experience this kind of emotional involvement and they become part of the show. That’s what Queen were about anyway. The audience became more and more a part of what we did. It was a very interactive thing. So, We Will Rock You is consciously designed that way, it’s engineered to make the audience feel encouraged to drive the show towards its conclusion.
INTERVIEWER: Towards the end of the show, not to give anything anyway, the audience really does become part of it.
BRIAN MAY: They do. It’s a great feeling, I’m very proud of it. You know if an audience just sat there and watched it, then we would have failed. But it’s never happened that people didn’t get up and get into it. So, it’s a joy, I love watching it and I love being a part of it.
INTERVIEWER: What is it like to be at the back of the house? To hear your songs and hear how this works, but not actually be in it yourself?
ROGER TAYLOR: I think we feel delighted, you know, to be of any relevance after all of these years! It’s a long time. But I think it’s the songs. We live on in the songs, and who would’ve thought, you know? It’s nice to be involved in something that’s not extinct!
INTERVIEWER: When you started this journey on We Will Rock You, did you have any idea that 11 years on it would be done not only in London, but all around the world and finally here in North America?
BRIAN MAY: No, we had no idea. Well, it’s the same as Queen; I had no idea there was anything bigger than The Rainbow in the world – The Rainbow was this theater in North London where we thought that would be the pinnacle if we could actually play there. And suddenly we’re playing Madison Square Garden – my God, that’s the place where boxers do their thing – and suddenly we’re surrounded by 20,000 people! We’re in Tokyo, we’re in Rio, we’re playing football stadiums; it’s all beyond our wildest dreams! And We Will Rock You has been the same; it started off as, “oh, wouldn’t it be fun to put a theater production together?” It grew to being a global phenomenon. And I’m thrilled [because] nobody knew how far this could go.
INTERVIEWER: I read somewhere that you did one hundred eighty tracks on “Bohemian Rhapsody” to stack all that stuff up.
BRIAN MAY: There’s probably a hundred eighty voices – three of us multiplied many times.
INTERVIEWER: Unbelievable. I mean that’s such a distinctive sound. What’s it like to hear this in other voices?
BRIAN MAY: It’s really good. You get opportunities to take it to a slightly different place and part of We Will Rock You is that ensemble singing thing, to create the sort of Queen sound. A lot of people don’t realize we don’t like having anything on tape or hard disk. So, in some cases, you’ll see actors on stage and suddenly there’ll be quite a big vocal sound but, they’re all backstage singing into microphones and monitors and creating that stuff live.
INTERVIEWER: And I understand that We Will Rock You was really the first time that Bohemian Rhapsody was done live.
BRIAN MAY: Well, in total, yes. We suddenly have the opportunity, all these voices, we can do “Bohemian Rhapsody complete” with the opera section.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think’s going to be exciting for audiences to discover here on this new tour?
ROGER TAYLOR: I just hope the audiences leave the theater with a feeling of having been uplifted, having laughed a lot, and having been ROCKED!
WE WILL ROCK YOU is presented by Dallas Summer Musicals March 4-16, 2014 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Great seats still available! Visit http://www.ticketmaster.com/promo/yzbh33?brand=dallasmusicals for tickets and http://dallassummermusicals.org/shows_wewillrockyou.shtm for more information!