PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With We Will Rock You Creator Ben Elton; Queen Musical Sets Out to Conquer U.S.
By Adam Hetrick
We Will Rock You, the U.K.-born musical that uses the songs of the rock band Queen to tell its tale of a dystopian future where original music has been snuffed out, has launched a U.S. tour after reigning over a decade in London's West End.
Featuring a book by Ben Elton, the jukebox musical – a mix of gritty rock and pop-culture comedy ––premiered in 2002 at London's Dominion Theatre, where it continues to play. Since its debut, We Will Rock You has become an international phenomenon, with productions as far reaching as Hong Kong, Zurich, Milan, Paris, Auckland and Las Vegas.
With an ever-evolving script that has been fine-tuned for contemporary U.S. audiences, We Will Rock You launched a North American tour Oct. 15 at Baltimore's Hippodrome Theatre.
Book writer-director Elton, who has collaborated with Queen band members Roger Taylor and Brian May, spoke with Playbill.com about We Will Rock You's creation, its longevity and future plans for the Queen musical.
When you were approached about creating a musical from the Queen catalogue, where did you find your inspiration to take audiences on this particular journey?
Ben Elton: I was contacted by Jim Beach, Queen's manager, because they'd been working on a Queen musical. The idea had been to base it on Freddie Mercury's life and the tragic end, but also the glory and the triumph. They felt it wasn't really coming together, and Jim wanted to know if I wanted to take a look at the script. They wanted an edge to this piece. I was very clear that I didn't want to be involved, because I don't think Queen's music is about Freddie's life. The band was all for individuals; they all wrote music, and they band wasn't about Freddie. In fact, he was the most fervent that they were a brotherhood. I was very clear that the musical needed to be about the band's vibe, about what they mean to us, about our lives, effectively. I mean, Queen are a legendary rock band, they have this grand scale, this fabulous universal ubiquity, and I said, "That's the vibe you want for this story." And I started thinking about legends and King Arthur and the Sword In the Stone, and suddenly I thought, "A guitar buried in a rock. A world where rock music is banned and plastic pop is the only music people are allowed – coming from the corporate – not the streets." So, I pitched the idea to them, and they loved it. The inspiration was really that the thing you think when you think Queen, and for me, the word was legend.
Was the entire catalogue made available to you? There's so much music to choose from, how did you go about selecting the songs?
BE: It was an interesting moment when I went to meet [Queen band members] Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor]. I said, "This is how I think we should place the hits and where they should appear in the story." They'd already bought the script – they were with it. That was a big moment. They had some thoughts, but on the whole they loved what I was doing, and we worked on it together. The only problem was what to leave out, because Queen had 40 top hits, and we only have 26 of them in the show. There's a sequel coming out I hope. I don't think anybody's going to be disappointed. I think they get what they want from Queen.
In addition to the hits, are there any lesser-known songs audiences can expect to hear?
BE: Over here in the States perhaps a little more so, because I think it's fair to say that even though Queen is huge in the States, they're not as huge as they are everywhere else in the world. In the 80s Queen didn't have so many hits over here, although now over all the years, they've become classics. So, maybe the audience here will have slightly more surprises than elsewhere. But there's one big surprise in the show, and that's the one Queen song that Freddie never heard, which I plucked from the "Made In Heaven" album. I thought it should be there, not just as a tribute to Freddie, but as a tribute to all the rock stars that died young; in fact, to any youngsters that failed to fulfill their dream and die young. It's called "No One But You," and it's a song that Brian May wrote for Freddie after he died. It's a fantastic song. Of course, Freddie never heard it, and that is the penultimate song of act one. It's an incredibly moving moment in the show. You can see people thinking of their own tragedies and thoughts before we return them to triumph. The song has become a massive hit because of We Will Rock You, and it's the one Queen hit that came from the show, not from the band.
We Will Rock You is set in a future with some rather grim prospects. How did you come about deciding on this angle for the story?
BE: It's pretty much like most dystopian visions; if you look at "1984," you'll see elements. Dystopian visions set in the future tend to be where the corporations – the man – has become all powerful, and the individual has become crushed. His chance to be himself has been sucked out by the need for profit or world domination. In this case, the story is about a world where corporate entertainment has become all-encompassing. The pop music machine has become so efficient that it has banned any individuality from the kids themselves; you merely can consume, you don't produce. The machine gives you what you want to listen to and you dig it. Our young rebels, our two kids in the story are on a mission to find the last guitar on earth so rock and roll will be reborn. That's what the story is about.
Since the premiere 12 years ago, you have continued to update the script to keep up with pop culture references. You also tailor it to various audiences around the world. That has to keep you rather busy and actively attached to the show.
BE: It's been a hard taskmaster or mistress. Of course, 12 years ago there were no cell phones, there was no twerking, there was no Miley Cyrus, so if you've got a show that is about technology and pop music, then the changing references have to play a role. It's been a much bigger part of my life than I ever imagined. It's not just the references, the iPhone gag, the twerking, which will probably be dead by the time we get out there, but you know, you've gotta be careful. You don't just want to be a knee-jerk and put something in for the heck of it.
Beyond your work as the book writer, you continue to return to We Will Rock You as the director. You worked with the American tour cast rather than having an associate re-stage your work for you.
BE: Brian and Roger and I take so much trouble in rehearsing and casting the company, because there's no one way to sing a rock song. With some musicals it's set, and that's fine, I'm not dissing that. But with comedy and rock and roll, it's about finding the individual performance, and no two Galileos are the same, because they have to find their own rock. They certainly can't sing it like Freddie, which is cool. Freddie couldn't sing it like them. We want everyone to be their own champion. Really, it's not so much bothering about the topical gags, which is easy, but what's tough is finding the soul in each new company. We feel we need to do that, we need to be there, and we understand what we want in a new company. That's why we feel we could never give it away to a kind of team who are sent away to reproduce it. It can't be reproduced because every night it's a new show.
You've worked with so many different casts throughout the life of We Will Rock You. There has to be a lot of inspiration in the rehearsal room. What's the dynamic like?
BE: Absolutely! We're not looking to come in and say, "This is what we want you to do." We're looking to say, "What have you got? Who are you? How're you going to sing 'Champions'? Where's your tragedy? Where's your triumph?" We say, "What have you got to offer us? We'll work with you to find your hero, your champion, and then you can make the audience into champions, too."
What was your working relationship with Brian May and Roger Taylor like?
BE: It's been great. I've been fortunate over the years. I've written an original musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber and had a wonderful relationship with him. But rock and roll will always be my passion. Of course, Queen exemplifies that, par excellence. Brian, Roger and I have really become brothers - many hours, many planes, many auditions together agonizing over who's got the passion and the heart. And we're still close friends, and it's been a very important emotional and personal part of life. Being a part of all this, learning about Freddie... Freddie's family are very close to the show. His mother loved the show, as did his sister and family, and I've become a part of the Queen family. I say that because I'm allowed to say it. They told me that and made it very clear. I'm flattered to share in it and also to hear all the great stories – most of which I can't tell you!
There's been talk of a future Broadway life for We Will Rock You following the tour. Is that an ultimate dream for this production?
BE: Oh my goodness, I don't know about ultimate dreams. You must never have an ultimate dream, or where do you go the following night? But wouldn't that be amazing? Whilst to be on Broadway – I studied drama at university, so, of course, to be on Broadway is a grail – but isn't it also a grail to hit the road? The road in America - that's what rock and roll is about – the road is rock. Freddie, Brian and Queen used to be on the road in a Ford, every night a different gig. So, the idea that We Will Rock You is on tour in the U.S., that the gang is going to be getting on a bus and rocking that town out then moving out, it's kind of the ultimate rock dream, isn't it? So much as I can't wait to get to Broadway, I have to say it's equally wonderful to be on a U.S. tour.
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