We Will Rock You’s creators talk about the show
By Jeff Lunden
Long before We Will Rock You, the rock theatrical featuring the songs of the super group Queen, became an enormous hit in London and throughout the world, it was simply an idea tossed out by an Academy Award-winning actor. More than a dozen years ago, Robert De Niro, who’s also a film and theater producer, approached the surviving members of Queen about taking their catalogue and turning it into a musical. “I’m not a fan of musicals as a genre,” says drummer/songwriter Roger Taylor, “so, basically, it’s nothing I was ever interested in.” Still, he and the band’s two other members decided to give it a try. Guitarist/ songwriter Brian May says the original idea was to make the show a biography of the late Freddie Mercury, Queen’s flamboyant lead vocalist, who died of AIDS in 1991. “We began to get keen on the idea,” he explains. But though they did a couple of theatrical workshops, the piece didn’t gel. “We didn’t really feel comfortable with portraying our lives and Freddie’s life — it just didn’t seem to sit well.”
Enter Ben Elton, a multi-hyphenate stand-up comic-novelist-playwright-television writer, whose resume includes musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber and writing for the cult TV series, Blackadder. Taylor and May approached him about finding a way to put Queen’s songs into a theatrical setting. “The reason they wanted to speak with me,’ says Elton, is “because I principally work in comedy – comedy with content. Queen has always had an immense sense of fun, never taking themselves too seriously. You can see it in everything Freddie did and the costumes they wore. They were very aware of the sort of theatrical silliness of performance.”
Elton was a Queen fan to begin with, and appreciates the band’s continued popularity. “Queen’s music is so ubiquitous and all-pervasive. It belongs to us all,” he says. But he “became a much bigger fan when I began to investigate the studio albums, after Queen approached me.” Elton says the band’s songs – which fill two greatest hits albums – are “extraordinary; even more eclectic and varied than you would know.” And, he adds, they have an “exuberance and sense of theater.”
The playwright and director crafted a satirical story set three hundred years in the future, a “tongue-in-cheek legend.” Elton wove twenty of Queen’s biggest hits into the dystopian narrative, which features a hero and heroine named Galileo and Scaramouche, a villainous Killer Queen and a group of underground rebels called the Bohemians. “I had this image of a guitar buried in rock, a world where rock music is banned, where live rock and roll is seen as the enemy of kind of computer-recorded industrialized-pop that is downloaded directly into the kids’ bedrooms, without recourse to their individuality,” he says. “And so that was where I began; the idea of one last guitar with which rock and roll will be reborn, and live music will again be played on the planet.”
The man who wielded Queen’s axe, guitarist Brian May, says integrating songs into the story turned out to be pretty easy: “Strangely enough, it wasn’t that difficult to put the songs in there, because a lot of Queen stuff is about finding yourself, finding freedom, breaking away from where you are, breaking in to the world. You know, “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” “I Want to Break Free.” It’s kind of all there. Most of the songs are delivered intact without even any lyric changes.” May says they did change some of the lyrics to their hit, “Radio Ga Ga.” He says it “becomes a song about what’s happening in the future; everything’s Internet, everything’s advertising, the kids have no freedom to think for themselves.”
We Will Rock You opened in London eleven years ago, and has played at the Dominion Theatre ever since. It’s even a bigger international hit. Productions have played in Australia, Japan, Spain, Russia, South Africa and Canada, among other places. A sit down version played in Las Vegas. Writer/director Ben Elton says the show appeals not only to fans of Queen, but to broad audiences. “You don’t need to be a Queen fan to love it,” he says, chuckling. “You do need to be a rock and roll fan – you do need to like your rock!” For the North American tour, Elton has made script changes, as he does for every production. He says he adapts things for the individual skills of the actors cast. And also, “because there’s a lot of reference to popular culture, a lot of fun to be had with the history of rock and roll and the grandiose sort of vanities of rock stars and their excesses,” he’s constantly updating the script.
As they have since the beginning, band members Brian May and Roger Taylor are actively involved in selecting not just the actors, but the musicians who will accompany the tour. “We put together the band, you know it’s a completely live show,” says Taylor. “And 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! ” On occasion, May has been known to join the band for the show’s finale.
It was May who dubbed We Will Rock You a “rock theatrical” and the moniker stuck. The show features the kind of lighting and video projections that are part and parcel of the kind of arena rock Queen used to play. For the first time ever, Freddie Mercury’s epic hit, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is performed live onstage. The original version featured 180 vocal overdubs – onstage the choral parts are sung live by the entire cast. By the end of the show, Elton says “We’ve got a triumvirate of songs, which are stadium pleasers, and you can’t NOT be on your feet!” Brian May says over eleven years: “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.” Drummer Roger Taylor says he’s pretty sure audiences for the North American tour will react the same way: “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!