As Queen’s global super-smash hit musical visits The O2 this month, Colin Sweetman charts the musical’s success
Queen and Ben Elton’s sensational worldwide smash hit musical We Will Rock You first appeared in London’s West End Dominion Theatre in 2002 – and has since gone on to be performed around the globe, from Australia to Canada.
In its history, the show has been seen by more than 4.6 million people and played over 2800 performances. Following a UK tour of five cities (Manchester, Sunderland, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh) the production is due to head to Dublin’s O2 for an eleven day run.
The show is set in an Orwellian future dystopia, focussing on Galileo (resembling Freddie Mercury) and his story of defeating the Queen who dictates the world’s thoughts and actions. The plot obviously has to follow a strictly non-linear walkthrough in order for the songs to make sense of the location. In effect, the above description involves the songs ‘Killer Queen’, ‘I Want to Break Free’ and ‘Under Pressure’.
Throughout the remainder of the play, there are a bunch of Bohemians on the street who ‘Want It All’ (cue ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’), the protagonist falls in love (‘Somebody to Love’), and they eventually kill the tyrant queen (‘We Are the Champions’). Nothing about Bicycles though, so insert sad-face here.
Announcing the Dublin shows, Queen’s Brian May he was “excited to be able, finally, to send a brand new, top-class We Will Rock You company to Ireland. We are completely hands on, and will be visiting! The Mother Ship, in the Dominion Theatre, London, will be rockin’ on all the while, keeping the home fires burning, until further notice!”
otwo knows that this statement is a kind of linguistic redundancy, but hey – who can argue with Brian May?
The first groundwork on the production was initially meant to be a sort of musical bio/jukebox depicting Freddie Mercury’s life, but when they discovered that none of the songs could fit (or so it seems), it looked as if they called in Ben Elton to mask it in the most peculiar fashion possible. Of course, that’s not to say that anyone could do any better. otwo could easily compare it to making a snowman out a piece of carpet, some empty jugs of milk, and some old pieces of rope – the fact that the storyline makes sense at all is a feat in itself.
Despite this critical setback, international audiences seem to find the show very entertaining. Personally, if I were to watch Brian May and Roger Taylor play the worst rendition of the Barney theme tune, I’d still call it gold.
The cast of the touring production includes actor and musician, Jonathan Wilkes playing the role of ‘Khashoggi’, the Chief of the Secret Police who answers to Killer Queen’s every command. Former Coronation Street star Kevin ‘Curly Watts’ Kennedy plays ‘Pop’, a librarian who is stuck in his ‘hippie’ past and is searching to find answers to the end of rock music. X Factor star Brenda Edwards plays the domineering role of ‘Killer Queen’ (I told you!), Head of Globalsoft, the corporation responsible for the banning of all instruments and musical originality. TV actress Georgina Hagen plays ‘Meat’, the main female of the Bohemians (ahem) and I’d Do Anything contestant Ashley Russell, plays the ‘Teacher’, who befriends students whilst actually working as a spy for Globalsoft’s Secret Police.
The production is also directed by Ben Elton. As to be expected, Brian May and Roger Taylor are music supervisors, and behind the cast “a band without parallel in the theatre, reflecting the true power of the mighty Queen” you’d be right to expect We Will Rock You to be a posthumous portrayal of a band that, well, rocked you.
Some say that Ben Elton has fashioned a hilarious futurist comedy around more than 24 of Queen’s biggest hit songs, delivered in a show that boasts the scale and spectacle that marked Queen’s live performances. This however, only really justifies Act One of the musical. You could happily leave at the interval having enjoyed most of Queen’s hits (bar ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’) but that would be extremely audacious and fall into the category of “bad form”. Not to mention that you’d have wasted money spent on the ticket…
“This show is all about legend,” says Ben Elton. “We take the legend of Queen and create our own fantastical story of young kids battling the might corporations who want to suppress their individuality and their love of music. They need a hero who can help them in their struggle, and we have two – the dreamer Galileo and the sassy rock chick Scaramouche. Guess who ends up winning?”
So in a way, it’s really all about teenage rebellion? In that case, otwo cannot wait to see Nirvana’s rehash musical. They’d at least have to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ about three times to keep these disgruntled teens’ attention on high.
Irrelevant point aside, Brian May adds that “the amazing bonus is that Ben’s script subtly works as a metaphor too. People definitely come out of the theatre feeling that in a strange way they now know us, Queen, and our struggle, our journey.”
This is where otwo will actually disagree with the god-like Brian May. There is no way that an audience can feel more connected to “Queen’s journey” after seeing this. It bears little resemblance: Queen didn’t operate in a totalitarian state; Freddie Mercury was openly gay (unlike the lead role); the piece is set 300 years in the future, whereas Queen’s heyday was the 1980s; and just how did Queen “struggle”? They all had degrees from highly respected universities, they would’ve had easy lifestyles without the band. Not to sound like a bitter cee-you-enn-tee or anything…
But enough about May, let’s hear from Roger Taylor: “Creating the show with Ben was very much a three-way thing. Which was great, because Ben has such a great fertile mind that never ever stops churning out ideas. He’s written a fantastic idea for the sequel. I counted 23 more hits he can put in it. Let’s see if people like this one first!”
The touring production reaches Dublin carrying with it an impressive legacy: when it first became news that one of Britain’s most phenomenally successful comedy writers Ben Elton, was teaming up with legends of rock – Queen – for a musical, there was much speculation on what such a unique collaboration would turn out. Especially when screen icon Robert de Niro became so impressed after attending the original workshop that his company Tribeca came on board as American partner.
The result was a new chapter in theatre history – We Will Rock You – a rock ‘theatrical’ which defied all comparisons and has gone on to rock London’s West End and theatres around the world for the past seven years to an audience of well beyond 10 million.
We Will Rock You – not just a show, but a promise! And next week: Spinal Tap, the Musical! Still, it’s an interesting way of seeing a few fogey musicians do their stuff on stage.