The razzle-dazzle, Queen-sized rock experience "We Will Rock You" invades Pittsburgh for the second stop on the show's first U.S. tour.
Calling on the words of Freddie Mercury, Ben Elton described the experience as "dynamite with a lot of laser beams," paraphrasing a lyric by the late great frontman from the song "Killer Queen."
"We Will Rock You" is not a Queen nostalgia trip or a "Jersey Boys"-style bio-musical. Mr. Elton wrote an original story for the show that has been playing in London since 2000. Original band members Brian May and Roger Taylor have been involved in every note and orchestration, including auditioning and working with a cast that's 24 strong and with the eight musicians in the show.
UK critics haven't always been kind to the flashy production in London's Dominion Theatre, although fans have flocked to the show for 13 years. The show's futuristic look is by Mark Fisher, the legendary designer for Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and U2, who died in June. Fisher, who also was chief designer for the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was joined by others from the concert world, including Willie Williams (lighting) and Bobby Aitken (sound). Tony-nominated director Christopher Renshaw ("The King and I") and choreographer Arlene Phillips are among those who bring Broadway/West End experience to the creative team.
They are interpreting the vision of Mr. Elton, known for UK TV and the book of "Love Never Dies," the stage sequel to "Phantom of the Opera."
"The story of 'We Will Rock You' is a personal one, and, like all good stories, it essentially is a love affair about two kids against the world, from Danny and Sandy to Romeo and Juliet," Mr. Elton said. "Nonetheless, Queen brought their theatrical mentality to the first meeting. Brian and Roger said if we do this, it has to be on a Queen scale. That means the risks are enormous. The show in London didn't recoup for three years -- we were doing it to lose money, from the look of things. But Queen had never ever been scared of losing money. They put on shows of a massive scale, and so did we."
Until now, subtle fixes were being made over the years, along the lines of "changing wheels on a moving car." But U.S. audiences will see a major rewrite, Mr. Elton said by phone from Baltimore, where he was joined by Mr. May for opening night on Oct. 16.
"It's a world where rock 'n' roll music has been banned in favor of a computerized corporate pop music machine, and so locked down is this machine that kids are no longer allowed to own guitars and write their own music. I wrote that 13 years ago, before 'American Idol,' before YouTube and, above all, before iTunes. So things have changed. And for a show that professes to have a comedic, satiric view of where rock music is going, clearly, it's time to have a think about it."
The songs are mostly a greatest hits tour of the Queen songbook -- "Another One Bites the Dust," "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," "We Are the Champions," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the title song -- but with no attempt to impersonate Mercury, who was known for his incredible vocal range and theatricality. You may know a couple of those songs because they are favorites of marching bands at halftime shows, and the musical likewise attempts to harness the band's "power to uplift."
One song that wasn't in the show when it opened is now an important part of the story's evolving theme of the virtual vs. the real world.
"Most important for me is the changing nature of friendship and social networking," Mr. Elton said. "That's actually led to a new song going into the show. We didn't have the fabulous John Deacon song 'You're My Best Friend' in the original show."
"The music is clearly Queen music," he added, "with all those wonderful choral, operatic, splendid, bombastic vocal gestures, it's all there. But nonetheless it's not Queen, and there's never been the tiniest ambition to make it Queen. Brian and Roger have always said that nobody can sing like Freddie, and we don't want anybody to try. ... Our job is to find the champion, the rock star, in each of our companies."
Fans of Queen will find connections to the band's music in the names of some characters. The "We Will Rock You" tour features Brian Justin Crum as Galileo, Ruby Lewis as Scaramouche, P.J. Griffith as Khashoggi, Ryan Knowles as Pop, Erica Peck as Oz, Jared Zirilli as Britney and Jacqueline Arnold as Killer Queen.
Mr. Elton, as a fan and a writer, marvels that each of the four Queen band members wrote No. 1 songs. He came to the project a fan of old-time roots rockers, particularly Elvis Presley ("You'll find that Elvis plays a role in the show," he promised) and the Beatles. Although he wasn't a "besotted" Queen fan before delving full tilt into the band's work, he found his way to them as many UK rock fans did, in the fall of 1975.
"I was 16 when 'Bohemian Rhapsody' came out and I'd left home that summer to study drama, and I was alone in a place that was pretty Dickensian ... and very lonely. And Queen were No. 1 for every single week of my first semester away from home. Nine weeks at No. 1 with 'Bohemian Rhapsody.' And that's in the days when you had to sell hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic to be No. 1."
The band lost its legendary voice when Mercury died of complications from AIDS in 1991, at just 45. Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 because of the hits that populate "We Will Rock You." Also in the mix is a gem you may not have heard.
"The greatest joy for me in the show is there is one song that I plucked out of an album," Mr. Elton said. "It's the only full song that we do that was not a top five or No. 1 single, and it's also the only song that Freddie never heard, because it was written by Brian for Freddie after his death. It's called 'No One But You.' It's a stunning anthem. ... We play it in the show as a tribute not just to Freddie but to anyone who dies young, who fails to fulfill their potential for whatever reason. It's a very moving moment in the show. I'm thrilled it's become a central part of the show because even though he never heard it, he empowered every word and every note."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.