September 19, 2008

Mercury’s Rising for Hit Show

By Liam Rudden

BLACKADDER, The Thin Blue Line, and Filthy Rich and Catflap are just three of the writing credits on Ben Elton's long and varied CV.

As a stand-up in the vanguard of the so-called alternative comedy movement of the 80s he proved a ratings winner for the BBC with The Man From Auntie and for Channel 4 in Saturday Live.

He is also the author of 12 novels, three West End plays, one movie (Maybe Baby, which he also directed) and three musicals.

Right now though, there is a passion in his life that supersedes all those achievements. One show, one dream, one vision, if you like, that has driven him for the best part of a decade; a show that doesn't have a title as such, but instead makes a promise: We Will Rock You.

Now in its seventh year in London's West End, We Will Rock You is a jukebox musical based around 24 of Queen's greatest hits. Set in a dystopian future in which Earth has been renamed Planet Mall and musical instruments have been banned, it's the story of one man's quest to rediscover the rhapsody that is rock music.

Sitting in the screening room of the Charlotte Hotel in London's West End, Elton explains how he became the 'fifth' member of Queen.

"They came to me and said: 'We have been trying to do something theatrically with our songbook'. Obviously it's a no-brainer that their music is uniquely theatrical.

"They were working on a Freddie biography but it was getting nowhere and I'm not surprised, it's not what they should do with their music. Their music is not about Freddie, it is about everybody's lives.

"Queen's music is universal, it has gone far beyond the life story of one man, no matter how interesting and fine that man may have been."

He continues: "They wanted it to be a comedy. 'That is why we have come to you, we want a bit of Blackadder in it. We'always liked a laugh,' they said. I didn't know them then - by God I know them now - and I was very busy doing Maybe Baby and writing a musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber about terrorism and politics in Northern Ireland called The Beautiful Game. So it took me a year to get back to them and I was really worried that I might have missed the boat.

"I rang them and said: 'I expect you have found someone to write your show for you'.

They said: 'As it happens we haven't. We are in no great hurry'. So I sent them a synopsis which I knew was right for them. I was so excited, I was tingling. It was a bit nerve-wracking because it would have been a bitter disappointment if, at that point, they had said: 'We don't get it'."

They 'got it', and loved the scale of the Arthurian tale Elton had penned around such classic tracks as These Are The Days Of Our Lives, We Are The Champions and Killer Queen.

"When I had time to think I started listening to their music. I knew that what they needed was a show that reflected the spirit of the band - that spirit is a sense of humour. Everything they did had a sense of humour and an epic scale. Suddenly the word legend came to me. Queen are a legend. They needed a legend, not some pop story that was either a biography of Freddie or, the other obvious idea, a Queen tribute band on the road story.

"They needed something as big and as vast and as silly as they are. That's why I came up with this Arthurian take of a guitar buried in rock, with a certain edge of satire because Queen also are serious and take their fun seriously."

Like many long-running shows however, We Will Rock You had a difficult birth. When it opened at London's Dominion Theatre on May 14, 2002, West End critics wereless than kind. Elton says he takes no satisfaction from the fact that the show has confounded them by reaching its seventh year, but just what was their problem? Some misplaced snobbery about thenature of musicals perhaps?"

You may say that I could not possibly comment," says Elton, "but the truth of the matter is that we had fine reviews worldwide."

Recalling the moment the creative team read their first night reviews, he admits: "It was a horrible morning. They said we'd close in a week. We didn't. In the long run the only way a show can succeed is through word of mouth. If people don't tell their friends, you close. If people do tell their friends, you run."

Warming to his theme, he adds: "Every night we get a standing ovation. We never fail to get a standing ovation. Of course it is a cliche to say that the audience are the real reviewers, but come on, it's obviously true."

If audience reaction has given Elton some solace, it is clear that he still smarts at the memory of those early reviews. "It was a horrible, hurtful morning and we have had better mornings on We Will Rock You. In fact, every other morning. But from that day on, even though the phalanx of abuse from the 'intellectual establishment' was so violent that it halved our audience and for a few weeks, making it touch and go, we kept playing.

"People kept coming and standing up and cheering, and the house began to fill and we've never looked back."

IFor your chance to win a copy of the We Will Rock You soundtrack on CD visit www.edinburgh and click on Fringed Out, the real-time online diary of the Entertainment Editor of the Edinburgh Evening News, where you can also read the full Ben Elton/We Will Rock You interview.

We Will Rock You opens at the Edinburgh Playhouse on November 2, 2009, for a ten-week season. Tickets priced GBP 16-GBP 40 are now on sale from 0844-847 1661 and

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