I didn’t expect to be an, ahem, champion of this much-maligned jukebox musical. I remember being in England when it first opened 12 years ago and being alarmed at what a huge hit it was; the tube stations were littered with countless We Will Rock You programs, and the show seemed inescapable. Until I returned home and We Will Rock You (which has only just posted a closing notice for that London production, after some 4000 performances) didn’t follow. No Broadway production. No tours. Until now. I just put it out of my mine, in much the same way that I never got around to getting Queen on CD after selling off most of my vinyl collection in the ’80s.
To my surprise, when finally confronted with this mercurial behemoth, I didn’t find We Will Rock You—subtitled “the musical by Queen and Ben Elton”—at all distressing. The show’s far-fetched, barely-there futuristic plot is a better choice than anything involving a moral or a message. The performances are strong and respectful (when respect is due) of the original songs. The seven-strong band is a full-fledged rock orchestra, an accomplished ensemble which gives the show concert-rock heft. The sound system is above average, the volume loud, the lights flashy. The sets are more detailed and complex than most of the tours which come through the area these days. The leads—hunky Brian Justin Crum, frisky red-haired Ruby Lewis, imperious Jacqueline B. Arnold, sinisterly blonde P.J. Griffith—can belt out the hits with clarity and credibility. Crum and Lewis rise to the difficult task of singing Freddie Mercury vocals as if they were love duets.
The show is this crazy little thing, a kind of magic. One can quibble about some of the interpretations and groan at the constant quotes from pop songs. Those who’ve seen this show before (I hadn’t) can delve into the nuances of Ben Elton’s wholesale Americanized rewrite of his own British-born script. (It’s now Graceland instead of Wembley Stadium, the Hard Rock Café instead of Heartbreak Hotel, and the character Pop has been renamed Buddy and been made more of an ‘80s metalhead than a hippie.) But overall, no sacrilege is committed and the songs are secure.
That’s because We Will Rock You is completely ridiculous and strangely adorable. I’ve seen rock musicals that enraged me, but this one is simply too outlandish to offend.
I did find myself, however, getting all steamed up over at the show’s merchandise table in the Shubert lobby. I can’t find images of the garments online (looks like this is a unique design for this tour), but there’s a T-shirt and a hoodie each emblazoned with the legend “We are the champions.” Problem is that the words are the ransom-note cut-out-letter style associated with another band of the ‘70s, the Sex Pistols.
I was a teenager in the ‘70s, and won’t debate the fact that the song “Sheer Heart Attack” on the News of the World album was a gateway drug of sorts for many prog- or metal-rockers who were punk-curious. But using a Sex Pistols aesthetic for Queen (or vice versa) wasn’t then, and isn’t now, defensible. Queen was the old guard, an overblown studio pomp-pop affair, precisely the type of music that the punk movement rose up to destroy. And don’t get me started on why “We are the champions” isn’t a very apt slogan to slap on anarchistic or anti-authoritarian artwork.
We Will Rock You (the show, not the merch table) dabbles in punk stylings as well. The hero and heroine (named Galileo Figaro and Scaramouche—and yes, I could deal with that) are shown to be loners, starky at odds with the “Radio GaGa” society in which they reside. They wear black. They assert their independence. They eventually fall in with a renegade gang outfitted as punks, headbangers, New Romantics and other defiant rock stereotypes. The joke is that these renegades have taken the names of long-lost legends of rock about whom they know next to nothing, because (spoiler alert) live rock music is banned on the planet, since it doesn’t conform to the corporate wishes of the Globalsoft empire and its evil ruler Killer Queen. So a big muscly bruiser in a kilt goes by the name Britney Spears (and singes “I Want It All”), while an even bigger guy is named Madonna.
The gags work as long as they don’t actually form opinions or coherent statements. Here’s a show that continually disses the very idea of pre-chewed, autotuned corporate major label rock, yet exemplifies numerous artists who emerged from exactly that system, Queen included.
It’s best not to think too much about We Will Rock You’s contentions, since they quickly become contradictions. Funniest one of all, which I can’t help dwelling on, is the idea of Queen—Queen!—as some sort of savior of raw, live, natural rock and roll. Queen was formed by upper-class college students who studied science, dentistry and art. They became rock stars which defined the ‘70s era of sordid excess. (The rumor that won’t die involves a record-release party in which guests snorted cocaine off the heads of dwarves hired for the occasion). They sneered at punks, and the punks sneered back. There was a famous exchange between Sid Vicious and Freddie Mercury at the Wessex recording studio (coincidentally in London’s West End theater district) where the Sex Pistol accused Mercury of “bringing ballet to the masses” and Mercury responded by cattily calling him “Mr. Ferocious.”
You can’t convince me that Queen, one of the best-selling bands in the history of the world, makes sense as a rabble-rousing inspiration for non-conformity. What is indisputable is how well-suited Queen’s music is to the musical theater stage. It’s refined enough and articulate enough and musical enough and saucy enough to fuel Ben Elton’s vivid imagination, and to sustain a fun-loving, bombastic musical—even one that has more in common with British “panto” shows than it does with well-made book musicals.
We Will Rock You literally builds a shrine to Freddie Mercury and Queen. It also demonstrates why he and his band is worth such an odd tribute. Campy, cartoonish yet in thrall to a hierarchical, monarchical view of modern rock, We Will Rock You saves the Queen.
[I’m reviewing We Will Rock in somewhat different fashion for the New Haven Independent. That piece should run Sunday or Monday.]
We Will Rock You is at the Shubert (247 College St., New Haven) through April 27. Remaining performances are Saturday at 2 & 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 & 6:30 p.m. $15-$118.