WE Will Rock You’s 20th anniversary tour plays the Grand Opera House, York, from February 14 to 19 in week two of its 2022 tour, directed by the futuristic Queen musical’s writer, Ben Elton.
“I can hardly believe it’s been 20 years since We Will Rock You premiered in London, or that much of what we thought was science fiction in the script back then has turned into science fact,” says Elton, the Eighties’ godfather of political stand-up comedy, novelist and writer for stage and screen.
“I guess Queen were always ahead of the game! I’ve directed this show all over the world and I can’t wait to bring it home to the UK with a brand-new production and a fabulous cast of young Bohemians – Bohemians, most of whom were rocking in their cradles when this adventure first began.”
Since its 2002 premiere, more than 18 million theatregoers in 20-plus countries have seen the flamboyant musical hit that enjoyed 12 unbroken years at the Dominion Theatre, London, followed by multiple tours and a tenth anniversary world tour in 2013. This year’s seven-month British and Irish tour begins in Southsea, Portsmouth on February 7 before heading to York.
Powered by 24 Queen songs, We Will Rock You’s bold narrative is set in a distant, dystopian, globalised future where Earth is called Planet Mall and its inhabitants wear the same clothes, think the same thoughts and exist in a brain-dead haze.
In a system that bans musical instruments and composers, rock music is all but unknown, stirring a handful of rock rebels, the Bohemians, to fight against the all-powerful Global Soft company and its boss, the Killer Queen.
Scaramouche and Galileo, two young outsiders who cannot come to terms with the bleak conformist reality, join the Bohemians to seek the unlimited power of freedom of thought, individuality and love and to set free the rebirth of rock.
Elton recalls how it became clear to him that the story needed an abstract quality “that reflected the feel of the word and music, rather than its literal content”. “This was not pop music, but rock music. Some of the most famous rock ever written, and legendary music should have a legendary context,” he says.
“I began to think of legends, both new and old, from King Arthur to The Terminator; heroic myths in which brave individuals take on the vast monolithic force of evil systems.”
The idea for We Will Rock You emerged from a meeting between Hollywood actor Robert De Niro and Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor in Venice in 1996.
De Niro’s daughter was a fan of the ubiquitous British band, prompting De Niro to ask if the rock legends had ever thought of creating a musical based on their songs.
May and Taylor subsequently became musical advisors to We Will Rock You but did have early reservations about staging such a show. “We were not initially convinced, not being fans of the ‘musical theatre’ genre on the whole,” says May. “The show needed to work in a theatrical context and retain the rock, while also incorporating the spectacle, uniqueness and humour embodied by Queen.”
Taylor concurs: “We [Queen] took the music seriously, but we never took ourselves seriously. We always had the ability to laugh at ourselves. Some of the stage gear and even some of the music is quite humorous. The whole middle section of Bohemian Rhapsody was. We did a lot of daft things and a lot of experimentation.”
Doing something new was important to May. “If we were going to go into this arena, the challenge was that we would somehow try and make it our own,” he says.
“There was a point where I realised there was a whole new area of creativity opening up to us if we wanted it – a whole new canvas to paint on”.
Cue the musical’s book, scripted by Elton. “He has such a great active mind that never ever stops churning out ideas,” says Taylor.
The resulting musical is fun, light and humorous but also contains softer and, at times, heart-rending moments that allow an audience to invest emotionally. “We Will Rock You is intriguing, challenging, achingly romantic, brutally cynical and at once both sad and hilarious,” says Elton.
Taylor agrees: “It’s silly, but funny and makes quite a lot of serious points while it goes on its rather daft course,” he says.
Echoing May’s determination to create something “new in every sense”, Taylor recalls the intention was “to keep it a bit gritty and make sure it’s not a typical show”.
Roll on 20 years when today’s focus on technological advancement leaves reading and the marriage of minds looking like outdated activities, prompting May to consider the musical’s significance in 2022. “I think it’s a very good comment on the way things are going,” he says.
“Ben’s idea that individuality is being eroded every second of the day and soon it will be impossible for people to write their own music, think their own thoughts, write their own poetry, is very perceptive.”
To May, “Radio Ga Ga represents the malady which is taking over the world. It’s almost like that old ‘men versus machines’ thing, which we also addressed a few albums ago,” he says.
We Will Rock You explores themes relevant to those growing up in today’s world, while the 2022 tour offers younger generations the chance to discover Queen’s back catalogue.
“I had this very strange thought that it’s quite possible that this particular musical might be the thing through which people know our music in 300 years’ time,” says May, who then reflects on Queen’s relevance, 52 years on from their formation in 1970. “I’m quite shocked at how fresh this stuff still sounds and it makes me very happy, obviously.”
May says audiences should expect “a stunning state-of-the art new-look production – but of course the original story is now more relevant than ever. We’re confident We Will Rock You fans will love revisiting the world’s first true ‘Rock Theatrical’, and a whole new generation will now discover the vibe!”
The tour cast will be led Ian McIntosh as Galileo and Elena Skye as Scaramouche, with Jenny O’Leary as Killer Queen, Adam Strong as Khashoggi, Michael Mckell as Buddy, Martina Ciabatti Mennell as Oz and David Michael Johnson as Brit.
The ensemble will include Laura Bird, Kate Leiper, Joanne Harper, Anna Davey, Edward Leigh, Spin, Karen Walker, David Muscat, Damien Walsh, Laura Ava-Scott, Victoria Collins, Joseph Connor, Louis Clarke-Clare and Jacob Fearey.
We Will Rock You rocks Grand Opera Hose, York, February 14 to 19; Sheffield City Hall, August 29 to September 3. York tickets are on sale at 0844 871 7615 or at atgtickets.com/york; Sheffield, sheffieldcityhall.co.uk.