Thank you for the music, Freddie
EOIN BUTLERinterviews a tetchy Ben Elton at the 11th anniversary of his critically lambasted but commercially successful musical based on Queen's classic playlist
For rock stars of a certain age, death was once considered a good career move. Not any more. With record sales plummeting, and concert tours by so-called “heritage acts” frequently raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at a time, life has never been more lucrative for the rock n’ roll OAP.
Freddie Mercury would be 66 if he were alive today. Quite how many stadiums Queen would have packed out in the past couple of decades, had the band’s outrageously talented frontman not died in 1991, is a matter for conjecture.
But there is no doubt that their music remains an enormous box office draw. In 2002, Ben Elton’s We Will Rock You – a musical based on 24 of Queen’s greatest hits – opened in London’s Dominion Theatre to some of the most savage reviews in West End history.
The Guardian called it “sixth form”. The Telegraph: “prolefeed at its worst”. Even the BBC, for whom Elton had penned such classic sitcoms as The Young Ones and Blackadder, dismissed his latest venture as “not just arrogant, but downright foolhardy”. Yet the musical has proven an enormous hit, seen by 15 million people in 17 countries.
Relaxing in the bowels of the Dominion Theatre, with another sold out performance booming through the walls, it is obvious those early reviews still rankle the show’s creator.
“If I sound a little defensive,” Ben Elton begins (and he does), “it’s because the notion that critics are able to set aside their own egos, their own petty resentments and preconceptions, and offer [an objective] judgment; is clearly insane.” Surely he feels vindicated by the show’s success? “There’s nothing to vindicate,” he snarls. “If half a dozen critics hated their night, they hated their night. What I object to is the idea that the night was hateful. No, it was only hateful to them.”
Personal invective against Elton aside (once a leading light of alternative comedy, he is now reviled as a sellout by many in the British press), it is hard to fault the substance of the early criticism against the show.
Elton rejected a plan by Mercury’s manager Jim Beach to base a musical on the singer’s life. (“A musical about Freddie dying of Aids,” he tells me, “was always going to be a musical about Freddie dying of Aids.”)
Instead he concocted a futuristic saga about two rock’n’roll freedom fighters, Galileo and Scaramouche, who do battle with the evil Globalsoft Corporation and its flamboyant leader, the Killer Queen. The kindest thing one could say about the plot is that there is precious little of it. Elton shuffles through a hefty chunk of Queen’s back catalogue with remarkable economy. But what a back catalogue that is. One thing the show’s detractors may have overlooked is the irresistibly broad appeal of Queen’s music. Even if you’ve never owned a Queen album in your life (and I haven’t), there’s scarcely a song in We Will Rock You that you won’t find yourself singing along to.
It is the songs that shift the tickets at the box office, the songs that flog the glow sticks in the lobby, and the songs that have audiences on their feet, night after night. (Consider, by contrast, what thin gruel Jennifer Saunders had to work with on Viva Forever: The Spice Girls musical over at the Piccadilly Theatre. Can anyone even hum the title track?) One of the more remarkable facts about Queen, I venture, is that all four members wrote number one singles for the band. Elton nods eagerly.