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Queen music is still rocking us, a dozen years later
When "We Will Rock You" opened in London 12 years ago, one critic declared that Ben Elton -- who collaborated with the surviving members of Queen on the stage musical -- "should be shot for this risible story."
But Elton is alive, well, cheerful and having the last laugh about "We Will Rock You's" enduring success as he calls from England.
"As far as I'm concerned, six million people have seen it in London alone, and it's never failed to get a standing ovation," says Elton. "None of them write for the snooty newspapers, but to me that's six million critics who like it, and that's good enough for me."
That number is considerably greater around the globe, of course. A science fiction-themed story about a totalitarian society and the last guitar -- or "freedom machine" -- on Earth, "We Will Rock You" ranks as the longest-running musical ever at London's Dominion Theatre and played in 14 other nations before its current run through North America. Its won theater awards in five of those countries -- including the Theatergoers Choice Award for Best New Musical and the Laurence Olivier Audience Award for Most Popular Show In Britain -- and box office figures have been as staggering as Queen's own record sales, which weigh in at an estimated 300 million worldwide.
"It's extraordinary," says Queen drummer Roger Taylor, who along with guitarist Brian May has occasionally appeared as an unannounced guest at some of the shows. "I have to say it was a wonderful surprise to us. Obviously I think the songs and the music lasts. We obviously have some kind of lasting appeal, and it seems to be slightly cross-generational, which is a fantastic surprise."
According to Elton, "We Will Rock You" was the brainchild of longtime Queen manager Jim Beach, though initially to tell the story of the group's late frontman Freddie Mercury, who died in 1991 at the age of 45. Robert De Niro's Tribeca production company expressed some interest in it during the late 90s, but after that didn't pan out Beach and Queen approached Elton, a comedian, writer and director known for envelope-pushing TV series such as "The Young Ones," "Blackadder," "The Thin Blue Line" and his own "The Ben Elton Show." Elton was interested but had a different idea for what the project should be.
"Really, Queen's music isn't the story of Freddie's life," explains Elton, 54, who splits his time between England and Australia. "It was written by all four of them for a start. Uniquely, Queen were a collaboration of artists, a collective. And the music is so ubiquitous. It belongs to all of us."
So Elton proposed the idea of building a story -- a "jukebox musical," as it were -- around songs from Queen's catalog, settling on the futuristic tale about rebels on iPlanet (or Planet Mall) fighting against the conformity engineered by the Globalsoft Corporation, which is, of course, run by the "Killer Queen."
"There's something gleefully futuristic about most of what Queen did -- 'Radio Gaga,' 'Flash Gordon,' the whole 'Metropolis' thing they did," Elton says. "So I felt like it should have some sci-fi elements, and that it definitely should be about rock 'n' roll. That's what Queen's about -- rock 'n' roll music, live rock 'n' roll music.
"It's just an innocent enough little piece, designed to give people as good an evening out as possible."
Nevertheless, Taylor says the group felt that, with Elton's concept, "we were fighting in action against the traditional musical, which is a sort of art form we loathe and hate. We wanted to be everything that it wasn't, and I think that's what ('We Will Rock You') became."
And within that, Elton adds, is a modicum of social commentary that he feels has grown more poignant with the development of personal technology and social media.
"There is a point about the ongoing isolation of the individual through technology," Elton says. "When people go to a concert in these vast arenas, they're all staring at little screens and spend the whole time videoing the thing. So the show is about reclaiming connection and the concept of an event which is unique and of its moment. That's something theater can do. Every night is different."
"We Will Rock You" is also distinguished by the fact that Elton regularly refreshes it and customizes the script for different territories, even updating when necessary. "When I wrote it 12 years go there were no bloody iPhones! for Facebook," he notes. For the U.S. production, a reference was added to Elvis Presley's Graceland, while songs such as "You're My Best Friend" and "Now I'm Here," which were more popular in America than some of the show's other songs, have been swapped into the running order.
Queen's epic "Bohemian Rhapsody," meanwhile, remains as an encore. "It didn't fit in the (script)," Taylor acknowledges, "but people would have killed us if we didn't hear it."
Though "We Will Rock You" is slated to close on May 31 in London, its future as a touring show is secured. Elton is hopefully that a long-rumored film version, for which he's written two scripts already, will finally come to bear, although the Queen camp is currently focused on a Mercury biopic that's been hampered by the loss of a star (Sacha Baron Cohen) and director.
Meanwhile, Queen keeps its catalog alive via regular archival albums -- a collection that includes songs Mercury recorded with Michael Jackson during the 80s is rumored for this year -- and occasional tours, including an upcoming summer trek with "American Idol" finalist Adam Lambert.
The only regret amidst all this, Taylor says, is that Mercury is not around to see where Queen's music has gone.
"I think he'd love it," the drummer says. "I think he'd have loved ('We Will Rock You') more than we do. I'm not really a musical theater kind of person, but I think (Mercury) would've absolutely loved this and I think he would've been really flattered and loved the idea of keeping our musical flag flying."
"We Will Rock You" runs April 1-13 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com for showtimes and ticket information. Queen + Adam Lambert, meanwhile, performs July 12 at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $35-$85. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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