By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
7:55 AM EDT, October 15, 2013
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."
"He said, 'Give me a few days.' But, Ben being Ben, he went out for a walk in the park and wrote it all in a night," May said. "He came up with this idea about kids in the future who do not know what rock 'n' roll is. It's deceptively simple, but there are rather subtle layers to it."
The scenario, set 300 years from now, envisions a world where young people look and think the same way and listen exclusively to music pre-approved by a mighty corporate entity. That music doesn't rock. Making your own is impossible, since all instruments are banned.
None of this sits well with some misfits known as the Bohemians, especially a guy called Galileo and his girlfriend, Scaramouche, who seek to revive the rock they've heard of and set out to find a legendary guitar that will help them.
"A story about humans spoon-fed and controlled by marketing — that's relevant," May said.
The show got a tryout at a 2001 workshop in London attended by De Niro, who signed on as one of the producers, via his New York-based company Tribeca Productions.
The final version of "We Will Rock You" opened the next year at London's Dominion Theatre, where a large statue of Freddie Mercury, in full performance mode, now stands above the marquee.
"When the show opened, it was crucified by the critics," May said. "We would have closed in a week if it hadn't been for a couple of TV appearances where people could see what the show was like. Ticket sales took off. That was 11 years ago, and it's still rocking. Every time I drive past the Dominion and see Freddie's statue, I stick a finger up."
There's a statue of Mercury onstage in the musical, too, providing a little biographical touch after all. It adorns a venue where the Bohemians hang out.
"They regard him as a messiah almost," said Ruby Lewis, who plays Scaramouche in the new touring production. "They worship Freddie for what he was in history, someone who changed the face of rock 'n' roll. The show pays homage to him by name. Brian and Roger loved him so much."
Mercury's personal life and death are not subjects for the musical.
"It's a comedy," May said. "It's pretty light. There are a few jokes about various aspects of all of us that are funny."
For the North American tour, some tweaking of the original text has been done, mostly to avoid Brit-isms that might not be understood. No need to fiddle with the music, of course; it has been reaching across boundaries and age groups for decades.
The Kentucky-born Lewis demonstrates that point. At 28, she is too young to have experienced Queen's heyday firsthand, but she practically grew up on the band.
"My parents were big classic-rock fans," she said. "They played Queen on the record player almost every night. I would dance to 'Another One Bites the Dust,' and a friend and I made up a dance for 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' The music never sounded dated to me. Being in this show is so surreal for me."
As for all the stage action woven between the Queen hits in "We Will Rock You," Lewis finds it persuasive.
"The story serves the music really well," she said, "and there is a lot of smart humor and tongue-in-cheek stuff. Teenagers are going to laugh, as well as adults. It's so fantastical. It takes you on an almost Jim Henson-y journey. As long as people aren't going to dissect it as a piece of Shakespeare, I think it will come off well."
Her role in the musical gives Lewis a direct connection to Queen's famed guitarist.
"Scaramouche turns into Brian May incarnate," she said, "so I have to look like I'm playing a major guitar riff."
The actual musicians in each staging of "We Will Rock You" are personally auditioned by May and Taylor to ensure an authentic sound.
They both have remained involved, in one way or another, with the band that brought them fame. They relaunched Queen in 2005 with Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and introduced another version last year with Adam Lambert of "American Idol."
When not in music mode, May is active in animal rights campaigns, recently against the British government's decision to cull badgers.
And the guitarist, who earned a doctorate in astrophysics in 2007, has also been busy working on his third book, "Diableries," due out this month. This exploration of mid-19th-century 3-D photos will come with a viewer — a "stereoscope" — designed by May.
The book is "a trip, I can tell you," he said. "If you like 'Avatar,' wait till you see what they did in the 1860s."
What May and his fellow Queen musicians did in their heyday left a sizable imprint on the history of rock. The guitarist said he is "surprised and always gratified" by the band's lasting popularity.
"There are times when I stop and think, 'My God, we did do all that, and it is still alive out there with generation after generation,' " May said. "I think one reason is that it relates to normal people, normal dreams and problems with life. And the music ain't bad, I have to tell you."
If You Go:
October 15th : 8 p.m.
October 16th : 8 p.m.
October 17th : 8 p.m.
October 18th : 8 p.m.
October 19th : 2 p.m.
October 19th : 8 p.m.
October 20th : 1 p.m.
October 20th : 6:30 p.m.
Venue: Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore, MD 21201
Tickets: Go to ticketmaster.com
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun