Rock journalist Ritchie Yorke chats with We Will Rock You creator Ben Elton about Queen and the enduring genius of Freddie Mercury.
A wall full of platinum albums, Rolling Stone magazine covers and NME profiles of enigmatic lead singers aren’t enough to ensure the success of a band based musical. Rock journalist Ritchie Yorke chats with We Will Rock You creator Ben Elton about why Queen and the enduring genius of Freddie Mercury is enough to make it work despite a rocky beginning.
We Will Rock You is undoubtedly the most celebrated and commercially successful products of the jukebox musical genre. With 16 million bums attached to sold seats around the planet, the Queen inspired musical boasts a highly crunchable success rate by any definition.
Yet it's not widely known that We Will Rock You was a musical that almost didn't get made. According to guitarist and enduring Queen leader Brian May, the band's manager had first discussed the prospect of a jukebox musical of Queen songs in the mid 1990s.
The initial aim was to create a musical biography of Freddie Mercury. A number of potential production partners such as Robert De Niro's Tribeca outfit dropped out along the way, citing concept difficulties. It was regarded as a great idea but hard to get off the ground.
Ben Elton, by then a high profile UK based radio and TV comedian and personality, was approached in 2000 and he suggested a change in artistic direction. He opted for an original story that would embrace the spirit of Queen's music.
Elton said that he was partly inspired by the computer controlled dystopia of the sci-fi film The Matrix.
Basically the musical tells the story of a band of bohemians who struggle to restore the free exchange of thought, fashion and live music in a distant future where everyone dresses, thinks and acts the same. Musical instruments and composers are forbidden and rock music is all but unknown.
It was especially interesting that prior to working on We Will Rock You, neither Brian May or Roger Taylor (the two still active Queen players) were admirers of the rock musical genre.
The London critics were united in their dislike of the show. The Daily Mirror noted that Ben Elton, 'should be shot for this risible story.' The Guardian claimed that the show's purpose was, 'really as sixth form as it sounds.' The paper also described the production as, ‘ruthlessly packaged and manufactured.’
A review of the recent Sydney return of the show in the online Daily Review showbiz site pointed out, ‘while the plotting and storytelling has been bolstered up significantly since the show’s premiere, it’s still not particularly strong. Tales of rebels in dystopic futures are a staple, but this is no Mad Max: Fury Road. The characters are well crafted, but most of the gags involve pretty lazy references to contemporary pop culture as rediscovered and interpreted by these futuristic rebels. They’re occasionally funny — I challenge anybody to not crack a smile at the line, ‘Britney Spears died to save us all.’
Ben Elton continued, ‘The first London show had a very difficult start. So the second production after the UK – which took place in Australia – was where I managed to get everything right. A lot of that fixing up was done here in 2003 and I took those changes back to London.’
“Mercury could make, ‘The last person at the back of the furthest stand in a stadium feel that he was connected.”
Elton doesn't deny that there was some strong resistance to the launching of the original production of the show, but he doesn't see any lingering irony in its belated acceptance. ‘There were probably about a dozen people who hated the concept originally, and they probably still hate it.
‘But the numbers on the other side of the coin have definitely increased. Something like 16 million fans have clearly loved the show since it leapt out on stage.
‘There's no denying that a show like We Will Rock You often leaves critics bemused. They're not sure what to make of a show which is clearly entertaining. The audience is laughing at the jokes and waving their arms in the air at the songs. Where does that leave the critics?
‘This is a bit of a problem for entertainment which is popular. And that's why you just have to soldier on. They tried to kill us when we first started out but they didn't succeed. What do they say about that? What doesn't destroy you only makes you stronger. And it only made us more determined.
Looking back on the beginning, the 57 year old Elton allowed that he was, ‘Disappointed at the start that much of the show's satire wasn't even mentioned in critical appraisals. The thing about really good comedy is that it always looks easy. But hello, is it really that easy? Or does it just look that easy?’
Elton felt it was important to upgrade the show in tune with 2016. It's 16 years old now and it was – after all – set in the future. The future has overtaken it now.
‘With all the technological innovations that were predicted - such as the whole idea that people would get their entertainment streamed directly to their pocket - has happened since then,’ Elton said.
The astonishing dimensions of the concert audience that We Will Rock You has created in its wake (as to a lesser degree have Jersey Boys (hoisted up on the classic rock foundations of The Four Seasons' admirable mid 60s repertoire) and to a lesser extent, MAMMA MIA!, repolishing the soft rock pastures of Sweden's Abba) might be discerned as an emerging trend in live theatre.
Ben Elton doesn't hear it like that. ‘There have been numerous attempts to create successful jukebox musicals,’ he immediately acknowledges. ‘But they don't always work. For example, there was an attempt last year to get a Beach Boys jukebox show off the ground on stage in New York, but it just didn't fly.
‘It all comes back to the story. The story has to be about the spirit of the band. That's what sorts it out. People ask me where would I go if you had to choose any other band to write a story around? That's not easy to answer because it's vital that I just have to get that combination of music and story totally right.’
Which of course is something that Ben Elton was able to do in bringing Queen to the theatrical zone throne.
‘I was lucky that I was able to start with the best rock and pop songwriters in the world waiting to be put into the theatre. They were familiar with theatrical illusions and vaudeville and opera – these aspects were as much a part of their music as rock is.’
In describing the particular vocal strengths of Freddie Mercury, Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe, who recorded an album with the Queen lead singer, stated, ‘His technique was astonishing. No problem of tempo, he sang with an incisive sense of rhythm, his vocal placement was very good and he was able to glide effortlessly from a register to another. He also had a great musicality. His phrasing was subtle, delicate and sweet or energetic and slamming. He was able to find the right colouring or expressive nuance for each word.’
Even as distinguished a contemporary as the recently departed David Bowie poured masses of acclaim upon the frail shoulders of Mr Mercury. David Bowie, who performed at the farewell to Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1991 and recorded the song Under Pressure with Queen, praised Mercury's performance style, saying, ‘Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest... he took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.’
Queen guitarist Brian May wrote that Mercury could make, ‘the last person at the back of the furthest stand in a stadium feel that he was connected.’ Overall, there can no doubting the slam-bang impact of the late Freddie Mercury. ‘I've been asked before about what other rock acts I might like to collaborate with in the future. So I pondered the possibilities.
‘Let's look at the Rolling Stones, for instance. Much as I've loved them all my life, I have to be frank and admit that I don't think their music would make for a great stage musical.
‘They are pure R & B. It's a very specific kind of music, and probably not eclectic enough. Whereas Queen's music is so diverse and widely appealing. It's fantastically eclectic, and so it's custom made for the theatre.’
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Brisbane based Ritchie Yorke is Australia's most experienced contemporary music writer. He started out in 1963 writing a weekly column for TV Week magazine. In 1966, he relocated to London and soon after emigrated to Toronto, Canada. Here he was appointed the first full time rock writer for Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail in 1968. He also became Canadian editor of Rolling Stone magazine and of Billboard. Yorke wrote several books on the English and Canadian music scenes and biographies on Led Zeppelin and Van Morrison. Yorke was the senior music writer for The Sunday Mail for 20 years (1987-2007). Yorke returned to his homeland of Australia in late 1986. Find out more at ritchieyorke.com