Go ahead. Mock We Will Rock You, the Queen- based musical that’s just ending its 12-year original run in London and is only now seriously coming stateside.
But every joke you’re likely to make about how silly this show must be is already in the show.
A more amiable, more self-deprecating, more disarming rock musical has seldom been produced. We Will Rock You has no message. It’s not Rent (AIDS) or Hair (War) or Hedwig (love) or Hairspray (equality). It’s mostly Rocky Horror, with a little Urinetown thrown in. If there’s any deep meaning to be had in the show, it’s a vested interest in the people’s right to rock out.
New Haven’s lucky to have We Will Rock You. The musical winds up a run at the Shubert with two shows Sunday.
Despite running for 12 years in London and touring successful through several continents, the show has never been on Broadway. This is its first U.S. tour.
The book, by British comedian and novelist Ben Elton (who wrote for the classic BBC series Black Adder, Mr. Bean and The Young Ones) has been extensively reworked for American sensibilities. There’s talk that the show is (finally) laying the groundwork for a New York run. If so, the Shubert can boast of yet another show that played there before it went to Broadway.
So is We Will Rock You good? Not particularly. But it does indeed do its utmost to rock you, and that counts for something.
Even better, it refuses to take itself seriously. The science-fiction plot, about the quest for a legendary lost “axe,” is strained and insensible. (“The Bohemians will never achieve their rhapsody!”) Most of the jokes consist of famous rock lyrics used as dialogue. (“Baby, we were born to run.” “Oops, I did it again.”)
On the other hand, great care is taken to make Queen’s rarefied, orchestrated rock songs work in a theater setting. There’s a seven-piece band on scaffolding above the stage, dressed in black and looking cool. The vocalists can sing in approved ‘80s rock style, where the words are clear and the notes are hit but there’s some added sweaty urgency to make it seem real.
Those of us who remember Brian May appearing at New Haven’s Palace Theater (directly across College Street from the Shubert) in 1993 might not have seen this as the future of the band. In ’93, Freddie Mercury had been dead for two years and appeared irreplaceable. Most of the band’s catalogue already seemed dated. May could tour, but it was a show of guitar theatrics and thin vocals, not a Queen experience. It was hard to see how the spirit of the old Queen would ever be renewed.
It takes We Will Rock You, a flashy storyline, a 14-member chorus (including a subset of “fat-bottomed girls”), big special effects (“Thunder and lighting, very very frightening me,” quoth the sidekick character Buddy at a climactic scene set in, of all places, Graceland), and several intense vocalists to equal the sheer theatricality of one Freddie Mercury. But We Will Rock You puts its game face on, pumps the air with its fists, and creates its own curious excitement. The show’s turn-off-your-cellphones warning ends with the exclamation, “Are you ready to rock?!” At one point a character screams “Hello New Haven!,” concert style. Corporate music is derided, and there are instead paeans to “kids making music in their garages, doing it themselves.”
Sure, these outbursts stretch credulity in such a finely tuned, overwrought, shimmering and slick piece of musical theater. But sparks of passion are found throughout this contrived Queen delivery device, and they connect mightily with much of the audience.
The first of We Will Rock You’s five-performance stand at the Shubert appeared to be completely sold out. The audience ranged from young children to the elderly—nearly all of whom were waving their arms to “We Are the Champions” and cheering for an encore once that ridiculous “axe” had been found and the part-Orwell, part-Footloose plot had been put to rest.