QUEEN STILL REIGNS
Ben Elton’s passion for Queen delivers a musical sensation
When Ben Elton steps into the rehearsal room for the latest production of We Will
Rock You, it’s clear he’s having a ball. The writer and comedian, who wrote the book for the musical around the music of Queen, is directing the latest Australian revival, and he’s full of beans when talking about the show that debuted in London’s West End in 2002 and ran for 12 years in the city’s Dominion Theatre.
“This is a new We Will Rock You, in as much as they all are – there’s no one way to do this production. It changes a little, because rock ’n’ roll changes and the social and comic environment that it’s written in changes,” Elton says. Among the changes is the addition of the Queen classic
Best Friend, and Elton says the song’s inclusion hints at one of the script updates.
“It was not part of the London run, and we’re putting it into this show for various satirical reasons – of a Facebook nature,” he says cryptically.
The latest production stars Gareth Keegan as Galileo, Erin Clare as Scaramouche, Casey Donovan as Killer Queen, Jaz Flowers as Oz and ’80s rocker Brian Mannix, former frontman of Uncanny X-Men, as Buddy.
As much as Elton is excited about the new production, which opens at Brisbane’s QPAC on July 10, his passion for the musical always comes back to one thing – Queen. While Freddie Mercury’s magnetism and vocal virtuosity were undeniable, to Elton the band was a rock-solid unit.
“Brian (May, guitarist) is a wonderful rock star. He walks the walk; he is beyond talented,” Elton says.
“The fact Freddie was such a genius as a frontman and a songwriter sometimes clouds our understanding of what a collective Queen were. (Bass player) John Deacon wrote
Another One Bites the Dust, Brian wrote We Will Rock You and Roger (Taylor, drummer) wrote A Kind Of Magic. I’d like to have half of what any of them have got.”
Although a Brit, Elton is based in Australia – he lives in Fremantle, WA, with his wife and their three children. But he lived in London when We Will Rock You was unveiled, and says the show was initially slammed by critics when it opened in May 2002.
“One night in London, there was a collective howl of indignation that Ben Elton and Queen were doing a piece of work together,” he says.
“I’ve never understood this critical irritation at what they see as populist – but, actually, that means popular.”
While its 12-year run and subsequent seasons around the globe were the ultimate riposte to the critical drubbing, Elton says the show wasn’t engineered to be a hit. It came about organically and slowly built a following through positive word of mouth.
“Believe me, if anyone could make a plan to be popular, they would sell it on the internet and they would be worth more than the Panama (money) laundering service,” he says. “We followed our instincts with We Will Rock You.”
Elton believes one of the reasons the show has endured is because the themes in the book were ever so slightly ahead of their time, and continue to resonate with contemporary audiences.
“The narrative concept was about the digitisation of rock music. Once it’s digitised, it will be possible to beam it direct and nobody will need to go to a live gig any more.
“(It’s) the idea that what essentially was a communal activity will become a private activity, so the musical is a celebration of ‘live’.
“Ironically, over the years, it’s become almost an embodiment of its own theme, because actually to hear live music, that’s rarer and rarer.
“Pubs are closing and if you want to go and see a live gig now, you’ve got to go and see Madonna at a stadium. When you go and see it, people are watching it through their iPhones or they’re watching it on a screen.
“Live music has become almost a museum piece, which is what the show’s about – and I wrote it 15 years ago.”
While the success of We Will Rock You could be the last word, Elton is open to receiving correspondence on the matter.
“We Will Rock You was originally dismissed principally because it was kind of mindless – that it was a very silly pantomime,” he says.
“I do think that it might be nice to one day get a letter from one or two of those critics – some of whom I respect – going ‘Hang on, all those jokes about privacy and about digitisation and about pop music becoming a private streamed commodity, which were so dismissed in 2002, actually, it all came true’.”
LIVE MUSIC HAS BECOME ALMOST A MUSEUM PIECE, WHICH IS WHAT THE SHOW’S ABOUT – AND I WROTE IT 15 YEARS AGO
Ben Elton with some of the cast, which includes ( opposite page,
from left) Erin Clare and Jaz Flowers, and ( top right) Casey Donovan. Pictures: Chris Pavlich, John Grainger