Classic Rock Magazine
As Queen sashay into London with their new £7.5-million musical, We Will Rock You, Classic Rock speaks to Brian May and Roger Taylor about what it actually means for the future of the band.
Understudy: Sian Llewellyn
"I HATE MUSICALS," STATES Roger Taylor. Not the most auspicious beginning to a conversation when the reason you've hooked up with Queen's drummer is to discuss the band's latest project. And that latest project is, of course, a musical.
IN THE 10 YEARS SINCE FREDDIE MERCURY'S death there has been scant opportunity to hear Queen's music performed live. Yes, there was the well-received tribute concert featuring Guns N' Roses, David Bowie and Metallica (soon to be released on DVD), then there was the collaboration between Queen and boy band 5ive, and a re-recording of 'Somebody To Love' for the soundtrack of A Knights Tale with Robbie Williams filling the vocalist role.
Unless you've been living in a vacuum lately you will no doubt be aware that there is now a brand new outlet for Queen's music. Since mid-May the musical We Will Rock You has been playing in London's West End. Taking over the huge Dominion Theatre (which can hold 2,061 paying punters) We Will Rock You has arrived to varying reviews that range from the ecstatic to the damning.
Although the idea of a Queen musical seems to have come like a bolt from the blue, perhaps capitalising on the success of other musicals built upon a catalogue of great songs (ABBA's Mamma Mia for example), it seems that the idea has been lurking in the Queen organisation for a long time.
"It's been tossed around with us for years," explains Brian May, backstage at the Dominion. "I'm sure I'm right in saying that we were talking about it in 1986, back when we were playing those last gigs with Queen at Wembley Stadium and Knebworth. The idea came from Jim Beach, our manager. He's always been involved with theatre, and he said it to us as a joke in the beginning. We never took it seriously, it was just a distant idea that it might be fun to do in the future. So I blame him."
We Will Rock You features a full, although flawed story from Ben Elton. "The idea for this came from Ben, the idea for the script and so on, which I think is very original and very funny," May says.
But is it that original? The premise is this: in a world not too far away in the future, music is created by robots; there are no real musicians left and proper musical instruments are banned. And then there's a contingent to rebels, the Bohemians, who take it upon themselves to try to find the elusive guitar that is hidden away deep in rock, just waiting for the hero to come and set it - and its music - free. The mythical guitar once belonged to rock's greatest band, Queen. All in all it's a damning indictment against how the music industry is being perceived, with bitchy references to Pop Idol and Pop Stars.
For all the bad press WWRY has received - and it's received a fair bit - it's a story that seems to be the sticking point. As someone in the Classic Rock office commented, it's like the story is written for kids, but the music is for adults. It doesn't quite add up. That and the fact that the storyline sounds remarkably similar to the one Rush used for their '2112' concept album.
"I hope people don't take it too seriously, as that's not the intention," counters May. "Ultimately it's a good vehicle for the songs - it shows up new lights and meanings in them and takes our music to a different place. During the development time Ben has almost become a member of Queen.
"We're very passionate about how things have been done, so our meetings have often been very heated, in the same way as Queen meetings used to be very heated. Things were never easy."
Roger Taylor maintains that the musical's knockers have made a personal attack against Ben Elton: "It seems that all the vitriol that has been spouted about We Will Rock You is aimed squarely, and often horribly personally, at Ben. But Queen never had a good review throughout our career anyway, so who cares what the critics say?"
The storyline has been denounced as "sixth-form" by The Guardian, "tub-thumping" by The Stage, "a pathetic, adolescent piece of work" from Charles Spencer of The Telegraph. "Don't get me started on him," seethes Taylor.
"The ones that were negative were either negative about Ben's personality or negative about us as a band," argues May. "Which is irrelevant to the show, as it's about the music."
Well, yes it is. But great music alone does not make a successful musical. Just last year a show based on the music of The Beatles called All You Need Is Love debuted in London, and it wasn't good at all.
So is Queen's music strong enough to carry the show? Classic Rock attended one of the preview performances, and in order to enjoy it you have to employ that theatrical technique 'suspension of disbelief'. Enjoy it for the music, and for God's sake, don't take the story seriously.
Given Queen's history of theatricality, if anyone's music should lend itself to a musical form surely it's their. "We always had a theatrical approach to what we did," May agrees, "in the sense that we wanted to use the whole media that was available to us. It was something that was built in from the absolute beginning of the band.
"When we started Queen we'd already been in bands that had shuffled on stage and played; we realised that once you're on stage you only have a certain amount of time to get across what it is you want to get across: your songs, your feelings, to make contact with an audience. We came to the conclusion quickly that everything is legal, any device that you can use that is going to help is permissible. That's how Queen embraced the dramatic effects of costumes and lights and sounds.
"We realised we had to use the space in one way or the other, whether it was pyrotechnics or whatever. We even played around with the configuration of the stage, building catwalks out into the audience, all in an effort to leap out of the ordinary. So all these ideas of presentation in the theatre are not foreign to us."
"We always tried to connect with our audience," Taylor concurs. "It was the most important part of a Queen show, and it was something that Freddie was very good at as a frontman. We didn't want to loose that exchange of energy."
Energy is not something WWRY lacks, and the cast - primarily made up of unknown performers - is strong. Leading man Tony Vincent is a rock musician in his own right (he recently signed a new deal with Epic Records), and his vocal prowess means he can handle Mercury's startling range well.
"We were lucky to get him," says May. "He's done a couple of albums and has played on Broadway, but we caught him just before he becomes a big rock star in his own right." Nigel Planer is also in the cast, seemingly playing an older, greyer version of his Young ones character Neil the hippy. Which is not so surprising when you consider that Ben Elton scripted the 80s comedy series.
Another element that impresses is the orchestra. Or we should say, band. "We spent a long time with them one-to-one," explains May. "They aren't people who sit down and read sheet music, they're people like we are, instinctive musicians. We wanted them to be a band in their own right."
The band is made up of rock veterans such as Company Of Snakes Bassist Neil Murray, keyboard player Spike Edney (who has worked with May, GN'R and Elton John) and guitarist Laurie Wisefield, who has toured with Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. And they're at the sides of the stage, not hidden away in the orchestra pit. "The fact that they're on stage makes them a bit more interactive," says May. "I wish they were a bit more visible than they are, actually. They're not your average West End theatre band - people are quite shocked."
"Because of the sort of music Queen made, the band are as integral to WWRY as the actors on stage," continues Taylor. "It was of the utmost importance that the band got a curtain call - which is unheard of in the theatre. We insisted on that, we want the audience to know how important they are."
The collision between the rock world and the theatrical establishment has not been without its setbacks. "Everything in the theatre has to be laid down and formally agreed." Taylor sighs. "There's so much red tape, and it takes so long to get something actioned. When Queen toured we used to take a massive stage set-up, have it built, play the show, tear it down, move it hundreds of miles and get it built again for the next night. We Will Rock You is stationary, in one location, and it takes forever to get anything done! It's unbelievable."
With a working team of about 150 people, Taylor and May have made it work by using personnel from both sides. "Half of it comes from rock - people like Willie Williams, who's worked with U2, people who've worked with Pink Floyd and Queen - and the other half is totally theatre-based," May explains. "All along the way, very time we've had a meeting there's been this uncomfortable mixture.
"Very early on we decided that no one side was allowed to say: 'This is the way it's always done.' The agreement was: 'This is new, this is different, we'll look at problems in a new way suited to this new effect we're trying to achieve.'
The notion of which May believes is the idea of "proper rock in the theatre".
Queen never really considered the behind-the-scenes organisation when they used to go out on the road. "There was just four of us on stage," says May, "and I suppose in retrospect we took some risks, but we'd chop and change things - throw songs in one night, drop them the next. We'd get people on stage who we'd never met before, and play a song we'd never done before, and the lights and sound guys would make it happen. But it's different here."
Built on more than 25 classic Queen tracks, including 'Killer Queen', 'Seven Seas of Rhye', 'One Vision' and, of course, 'We Will Rock You', the show includes no new music from Taylor and May.
"This was always going to be the Queen canon," says May. "In the future we might do something new, but the brief was putting something on in response to what we felt was a feeling out there: that people don't hear the music enough,. We kept hearing: 'You don't hear it on the radio, you don't go out and play, so how do we get our Queen fix?' There's the idea now that this is where the home of Queen is.
"And the idea of new blood appeals, too. As well as the Queen fan who might not spend too much time at the theatre, we're getting the theatre goers curious as to what this is all about, who might know very little about Queen but come to check us out.
"We didn't want to make a musical like everyone else makes a musical," says Taylor. "Let's live dangerously. Along the way we've tried to push things in a new direction. This show will be changing the West End. And it probably needed it. It's been hard times in the theatre recently, and it needs that injection of something that perhaps feels more in contact with normal people."
To make the songs work within the context of the show, minor changes had to be made to accommodate the story, so genders and words have been altered. And that didn't sit comfortably with the composers at first.
"Both 'One Vision' and 'Radio Ga-Ga' are changed quite a lot lyrically," explains Taylor. "They were songs that I had a big hand in writing the lyrics for originally. That's taken a bit of getting used to."
The majority of the songs worked well to further the story of WWRY, but there was one that proved problematic: "The one that didn't work was 'Bohemian Rhapsody', because the lyrics aren't linear, and to include it seems gratuitous," May reveals. "But this would be the first time we'd ever be able to perform it, because we have enough voices on stage. With Queen we could never do the middle section because there simply weren't enough of us."
But surely there could be no way a Queen musical could exist without the inclusion of that song? "Absolutely. So Ben found a way around it. We weren't sure it would work, but I think it does."
We won't spoil the surprise of how it fits into the show, but rest assured that the impact of hearing 'Bo Rhap' in all its glory is quite something.
On the surface, the idea of putting all Queen's hits into a stage show seems a safe way of keeping the band in the public eye without having to address the thorny issue of 'replacing' Freddie. "Yeah, I suppose so," May admits. "It sidesteps the problem of wondering what Queen should be in the year 2002. Roger and I are both very active, but John has chosen to opt out."
Ah yes, the other surviving member of Queen, conspicuous by his absence in the musical. The reason, says May, diplomatically, is that it's "just his choice. He's very much a family man, and he didn't want to get into the day-to-day development of this and that's it. It's just his choice."
When May is asked whether Deacon has seen the show, there's a very long pause, perhaps telling in its uncomfortable silence. "Um... I don't think he has. Unless he's done it in secret."
"And we don't have Freddie around, so it would be hard to be Queen. It is hard. We face this problem very time we go out and play live."
So what of the future for Queen? "Well, given that the 'Greatest Hits' collection is back in the chart at No 2 reinforces the idea that people still want to hear our music," sidesteps Taylor neatly. We've got some more work to do on the show. There will be the cast album, which we're going to record live in the theatre rather than in a studio, then I want to take some time out. After that, we'll see."
"Ben's already talking about the sequel," May adds.
Musical theatre: it's the new rock'n'roll. For Queen, anyway.
Source: Classic Rock July 2002