Jukebox musical ‘We Will Rock You’ pays tribute to Queen
Hedy Weiss Sun-Times Theater Critic October 16, 2013 5:26PM
“We Will Rock You” (the Germany cast pictured) depicts a futuristic world of Bohemians living on the iPlanet where rock music is unknown.
‘We Will Rock You,’ Oct. 22-27, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. $18-$85. (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com.
Updated: October 17, 2013 8:21AM
There were The Beatles. There were the Rolling Stones. And then, beginning in 1970 and on through the 1980s, there was Queen.
British rock and roll royalty, all, with each band theatrical in its very particular way. Yet in the final analysis, Queen — originally comprised of Freddie Mercury, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor — might well be judged the most flamboyant of them all.
Among the most successful stadium rock bands in the world, with such hits as “We Will Rock You,” “We Are the Champions,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Radio Ga Ga” (and the list goes on, and on), the band enjoyed mega-sales for years, and is still renowned as the undisputed star among stars at the landmark Live Aid concert of 1985.
So where do you start if you want to create some sort of jukebox musical about the group?
The idea of devising such a show began percolating in the mid-1990s, some years after Mercury, the leading vocalist with the four-octave range and the playfully outrageous stage persona, died of complications from AIDS. But the initial concept of turning the show into “the life of Freddie” fell out of favor — too dark perhaps, or out of synch with the spirit of the music.
Then, in 2000, the producers behind the project approached Ben Elton, the popular English comedian, author, playwright, actor and director who was a wildly popular part of London’s alternative comedy movement in the 1980s.
Elton approached the Queen songbook in a totally different way. Inspired by George Orwell’s mind-control classics, the computer-controlled dystopia of the science-fiction film “The Matrix,” and a bit of Arthurian legend (with an electric guitar replacing the sword) he penned a futuristic romp about a group of Bohemians living on the iPlanet — a place where commercial conformity is the operative principle, and where Ga Ga Kids watch the same movies, listen to the same computer-generated music, wear the same clothes and are inculcated with the same thoughts and opinions. Musical instruments are forbidden, and rock music is unknown. But a few rebels and their “prophet,” Galileo, begin the struggle to restore freedom.
“We Will Rock You” opened in London in 2002 (where it is still running), and has subsequently been seen throughout Europe, as well as in Australia, Japan, Canada, South Africa and beyond. It has yet to make it to Broadway, but now, the show, which Elton describes as “a 12-year work-in-progress that is under continual revision,” is on its first North American tour, set to play Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, Oct. 22-27.
“This is a huge production that requires six lorries to move from place to place,” said Elton, speaking from a historic theater in Utica, New York, where the tour was starting. “Freddie would have loved it.”
“Frankly, it is unusual that Brian [May], Roger [Taylor] and I are still working on a show that has had such success [it reportedly has played to more than 15 million people worldwide], for all these years,” Elton admitted. “But so much has changed in the world that the storyline has become less futuristic than real. The idea of a top-down corporate machine feeding us culture and commerce directly through our mobile phones, with the whole marketing process increasingly homogenized, is a reality. This was a ‘future horror’ when I first wrote the story, but now it has gotten to the point where having the family gather around a television screen is an almost humanizing, nostalgic experience. Back then I even imagined ‘cyber stars,’ and then along came Simon Cowell.”
Elton is clear that there is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor in the script, too, “because that was always the nature of Queen.”
As for his personal attachment to the band’s music, it began when he was 16.
“I left home to study at drama school and was terribly homesick,” Elton recalled. “But the Number 1 hit of that moment  was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ which played at every little bed and breakfast I stayed in.”
Elton’s first big exposure to musical theater came in 1972 when, as part of a friend’s birthday treat, he was invited to see ‘Grease’ in the very West End theater where “We Will Rock You” now plays. And he makes no apologies for the juke box musical form.
“I’ve always had a weird hybrid of tastes, from Elvis and Chuck Berry to The Beatles and Broadway. Many decades ago the great pop music came from the theater — Gilbert and Sullivan, Cole Porter, Noel Coward. Now, in some way, we’re just taking the songs everybody hums and putting them in the theater. And the theater is a much better place to hear them than in a huge stadium where you’re watching a video screen, or on the tiny screen of your phone.
“Queen, particularly Freddie, was all about theater, anyway — Wagnerian ‘Gotterdammerung’ one minute, vaudeville or Cole Porter the next, and a 1920s pastiche suddenly crashing into a rock anthem.”