News Column

Musical embraces the spirit of Queen [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)]

October 26, 2013


Freddie Mercury would have loved "We Will Rock You." The flamboyant lead singer of Queen, who died in 1991, will be there in spirit when the rock theatrical opens Oct. 29 at the Benedum Center.

"These are Queen's greatest hits set into a story in a theatrical context," says Rick Hip-Flores, musical director and conductor for the show. Hip-Flores will conduct an eight-piece rock band that will accompany the action onstage.

The ensemble includes two percussionists, three keyboard players, two guitarists and a bass player. It takes a lot of musicians to do justice to the complexity of Queen's songs. "Bohemian Rhapsody," "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and "Another One Bites the Dust" are among the 24 in the production.

" 'We Will Rock You' is a rock show, but it's not your typical rock show," Hip-Flores says. "The demands on the chorus are much more than you would find in a rock show. There's much more complex harmonies and four-part harmonies and soprano, alto, tenor and bass. On top of that, the harmonies that Queen uses are not simple major and minor chords. You have to also sort sixth chords and diminished chords and jazz chords. It's your atypical rock show."

Critics sneered or dismissed Queen during their '70s heyday, but Mercury and Co. were always in on the joke. Hits like "Under Pressure" were delivered with tongue firmly in cheek.

"We Will Rock You" should deliver the same campy humor. The show was created by British comedian and writer Ben Elton, whose credits include television's "Mr. Bean" and the "The Young Ones," a goofy '80s British sitcom with a rock 'n' roll sensibility and twisted sense of humor.

Keeping true to the band's spirit, Queen guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor are musical supervisors to the show. They had input into the casting of the singers, actors and musicians. Brian Justin Crum and Ruby Lewis star.

"We Will Rock You" is now in its 12th year at the Dominion in London's West End and has toured worldwide.

The show is set in a future dystopia, where the planet is controlled by a single omnipotent corporation. Conformity is the law of the land, with citizens wearing the same clothes, watching the same movies and listening to the same music. That music, by the way, ain't rock 'n' roll -- instead, it is generated by the corporation's computers. Musical instruments are banned.

But a rebel group, the Bohemians, are intent on overthrowing this oppressive world order.

Hip-Flores, 33, is more a Broadway music fan than a rock fan. But Queen's music effortlessly combines the two musical genres in a way that wasn't always appreciated during the band's career. Queen borrowed gleefully from heavy metal, music hall, disco and cabaret.

Hip-Flores isn't sure "Bohemian Rhapsody" would make a splash if it were to debut today, given the increasingly short attention span of the digital-music age.

"I don't think anybody would write 'Bohemian Rhapsody' today and have it be a big hit," he says. "It doesn't have a big hook. It doesn't have your typical verse-chorus."

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Rock show takes a long trip to the U.S.


Eleven years after "We Will Rock You" debuted in London and spawned tours in Australia, Japan, Spain, Russia, South Africa and Italy, its first North American tour kicked off this month.

"We decided to take our time," says producer Jane Rosenthal, whose Tribeca Theatrical Productions, which she co-founded with Robert De Niro, is putting the show on the road. "We decided to let America wait."

British comedian and writer Ben Elton worked with the surviving members of Queen and the family of the late singer Freddie Mercury to write a love story studded with "perhaps the most theatrical rock music of all time."

The tour launched Oct. 15 in Baltimore and hits more than a dozen states and Canada over the next year.

"This is a way of taking this spectacular deep and rich catalog and being able to tell stories with it," Rosenthal says. "It defies any demographic."

Critics in England were less than kind when the show began its run in 2002, with the Times saying it was "so awful, it's almost entertaining" and the Guardian calling it "ruthlessly manufactured." The Daily Mirror went so far as to say that "Ben Elton should be shot for this risible story."

But "We Will Rock You" simply wouldn't bite the dust. The show is still on in London's West End and has spawned several tours through 17 countries, playing to more than 15 million people. A stripped- down version opened in Las Vegas in 2004 but lasted only a year.

Elton, who helped write the groundbreaking TV comedies "Mr. Bean" and "The Young Ones," was initially approached by the surviving members of Queen to help them write a musical about Mercury. He immediately thought that was a terrible idea.

Instead, inspired by the Legend of King Arthur, "The Matrix" and George Orwell's "1984," Elton penned a satirical story that tweaks corporate show business for sucking away individuality. He has been able to update certain sections of the script to stay technologically relevant over the years, adding jokes about Facebook or Twitter as they got topical.

"Because it's a satire and a comedy, the terms of reference change," he says. "I'll probably bang a twerking gag in for a month. It won't last long. The show can contain that."

Rosenthal hopes to show Yanks that Queen's music is more than the stadium-rocking "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions."

"The U.S. knows probably 11 to 14 songs," she says. "We forget that they wrote 'Who Wants to Live Forever' or 'No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young).' Queen music is beautiful. It tells stories. It's fun."

Mark Kennedy is the Associated Press drama writer.

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