Legendary Queen guitarist Brian May won’t let a bad review worry him when We Will Rock You kicks off its arena tour later this year.
The musical, written by Ben Elton to the immortal back catalogue of Queen, has defied the critics to prove, that it is the public who make up their own minds, whatever the critics say. It originally premiered in 2002 at London’s Dominion Theatre, where it is the longest running show in the venue’s history and where it is still running today – its 11th year with over 4,000 performances. Since its premier over 15 million theatergoers in 17 counties have seen it.
Queen guitarist Brian May said: “We had the worst reviews in years, second only to Les Miserables!. We had two very fortunate things happen soon after we opened: one was the party at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, where we appeared on top of the palace with the cast singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘We Are the Champions’. The other was appearing on Michael Parkinson’s television chat show. With those two bits of television, people were able to see for themselves what was in the show — and it became an avalanche, as people realised what was on offer.”
And word-of-mouth quickly grew to build the show into a smash hit. “The secret of the show’s success is very simple — it’s word of mouth, the strongest force known to man,” quips Brian. “No matter what mood people come in with, they come out laughing and smiling and punching the air so they can face the next day with a rock ‘n’ roll attitude! It’s also a show with cross-generational appeal — from grandsons to grandfathers, it makes everyone happy!”
But though it became a huge success, he adds, “Nothing is ever taken for granted. It’s taken a lot of work inside and outside to maintain it, and we’ve had a great learning experience from it.” That all started when they embarked on creating a musical in the first place.
“We built our team from scratch, so it was a pioneering adventure for us. Though Queen has been successful around the world for our records and tours, we had never felt comfortable in the world of musical theatre — let alone the idea of creating our own musical. So it was a big step for us, and it could have easily failed in the first weeks! But we put together a team with a lot of rock ‘n’ roll people, like designer Mark Fisher and lighting designer Willie Williams, and theatre people, too, like costume designer Tim Goodchild, musical supervisor Mike Dixon and choreographer Arlene Phillips who is a bit from both worlds — and that clash of two histories and ways of working worked out really well: we got the best of both worlds!”
He credits Ben Elton, who now directs the show and created its story, with providing its shape and structure. “The crucial thing was getting Ben in. We had already workshopped an earlier version which was a history of Queen, but we weren’t comfortable portraying Freddie in a musical.” Instead, a giant gold statue of him now preserves his memory front of of the Dominion Theatre, and his spirit lives on in the show’s music. “Ben came up with a show that isn’t about the past but about the future – by having kids looking to what’s going to happen to rock ‘n’ roll in the future, that gave us the key to make a show that is positive and funny, but there’s also a bit of meat to it, too. Ben’s portrayal of the future has a lot of truth in it, as has become apparent, of a world enslaved by the power of marketing and globalisation. That story has become more and more relevant, instead of old-fashioned, as the years have gone on.”
He also thinks that Ben Elton’s script does something else. “There’s a subtle force at work in it – he managed in a rather tasteful way to give audiences an experience so that they understand us by the time they leave it. It isn’t a biography of Queen, but the struggle against the odds that it shows and the team spirit around it somehow relates very closely to ueen as we were and as we are.”
It was also crucial to get the music right: “I spent a lot of time with Mike Dixon to create the vocal score, so we’d portray the music in the right way in the theatre without compromising the quality. We had a piece of rock, in every sense, and had to chisel a musical out of it. And then there was the final ingredient of the cast, and the fantastic artists we had and have in it.” He maintains a close involvement in all the castings of the show: “We still audition every new cast personally, whether in this country or other countries – as well as the band. They’re also vital. The band isn’t separate with this show but a part of the team – they are in every sense part of the central motor that drives the production.”
That is certainly the case with this latest world tour, led by Mig Ayesa as Galileo – “he’s a great lynchpin of the show, a marvel in himself who is like Peter Pan – he has the endless energy of a teenager but the skills of someone slightly older. Brenda Edwards is the perfect Killer Queen – she’s done us great service before in London, and Kevin Kennedy as Pop, who has also been in the show before for us, needs no introduction – he’s a great guy and has funny bones!”
The band has some surprises, too, including Roger Taylor’s own son Rufus, as the drummer; “But it isn’t nepotism! He’s a phenomenon, one of the great drummers at the age of only 21! We’ve met some great people around the world that we can call on now, and we’ve bringing two amazing guitarists over from Australia for this production – they work as a team in an amazing way that is flawless and brilliant!”
But the show is also going to be physically larger than ever before, owing to the fact that it is playing in arenas for the first time. “It’s being slightly redesigned to work in bigger auditoriums. The show in London is obviously not moveable — it’s now in its 11th year — so we thought it would be great to put a new cast and team together and take the chance to slightly modify the show and make it more transportable. I think we’re always looking for new pastures, and there’s been a great demand in various countries in Europe and America, to see it. We’ll be taking it across America next year.”
– But at the one thing at the root of the show’s popularity will be unchanged: the fantastic, beloved songs. “It’s a magic thing to have songs that people recognise and that already trigger some emotion in them,” acknowledges Brian. “Songs that are big hits, like We Will Rock You, Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions, become written into people’s psyches, and are great triggers to remind them of good times.” The show provides its own unforgettable good time as it does so.