They were the champions, dominating airwaves in the '70s and '80s with their distinctive brand of pomp and romp. And now they're back, making the same bold promise: "We Will Rock You."
That's the title of a jukebox musical filled with about two dozen songs by the British band Queen. Those songs are applied to a sci-fi scenario in the show, which opened in London's West End in 2002 to reviews that were slightly to the right of scathing.
But those notices were not enough to make another one bite the dust. Eleven years later, the London production is still running strong; the box office there recently announced tickets are now on sale into next April.
The work has also been staged in other countries, including Australia and Russia, reaching a total audience estimated at 16 million. But the only professional presentation of the musical in the United States has been a 2004-2005 run in Las Vegas — until now.
The first North American tour of "We Will Rock You" opens this week in Baltimore and will visit two dozen spots in this country and Canada by August; a Broadway stop may be added at some point.
For the tour launch Tuesday night at the Hippodrome, a helping hand will come from original Queen member Brian May, whose screaming riffs on his homemade guitar are a big part of the band's musical signature.
"They don't need me," May, 66, said in a phone call from Las Vegas. "It's a cast-iron show. But I've got to be there on opening night, and if I'm there, I would rather participate than just be an uncle to the show. I like to get out there and interact with the cast."
May is just one of the "uncles" who helped create "We Will Rock You." He and Queen drummer Roger Taylor, who have performed together periodically after the death of Queen's kinetic lead vocalist Freddie Mercury 22 years ago, first became interested in the concept thanks to an American movie star.
The two musicians happened to run into Robert De Niro at the Venice Film Festival in 1996. De Niro, whose daughter was a big fan of the band, suggested putting a stage show together using Queen songs.
Given how theatrical the band had always been — one of its biggest hits was the six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody," something of a mini-opera in itself — fashioning a Queen musical seemed like a good idea.
"But at the very beginning, we were not sure the medium would be right for us," May said. "It was a difficult birth, and a journey of discovering."
The initial idea they settled on was a musical built around the history of the band. And Queen had a lot of history.
The group was started by May and Taylor in 1970 after a previous band of theirs dissolved. They quickly recruited Mercury, who came up with the Queen moniker, and bass guitarist John Deacon. Hit song after hit song soon followed as the musicians won a fan base far beyond the U.K. (where Queen's "Greatest Hits" remains the best-selling album ever).
Mercury's death in November 1991 of AIDS made global news. A few months later, the remaining Queen members and a who's-who of rock stars gave a Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in London that raised millions for AIDS organizations and was broadcast to a television audience estimated at over a billion.
It is easy to imagine a musical that incorporated all of the successes and heartaches of this band, as "Jersey Boys," the popular 2005 jukebox musical, did with the story of the Four Seasons.
" 'Jersey Boys' is very similar to the way we could have gone," May said. "The simple answer why we didn't do that is that we didn't like it. It was not fun enough. And there was something invidious about doing a biographical show with so many people still alive. You have to take yourself out of it."
Another chance meeting helped get the project refocused.
"We stumbled upon Ben Elton," May said, referring to the British comedian and author.
Elton's writing credits include the clever Rowan Atkinson TV series "Blackadder" and "The Thin Blue Line," as well as the books to two Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, "The Beautiful Game" and "Love Never Dies" (the 2010 sequel to "Phantom of the Opera").
It was Elton who fashioned the final version of "We Will Rock You."