News Column

'We Will Rock You' is built on Queen's flamboyant rock music

December 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 08--Imagine a dystopian future in which rock music has been supplanted by synthesized, formulaic tunes provided by a web-based conglomerate.

It isn't hard to do. Turn on mainstream radio or check out the latest iTunes sales chart. We're one Nickelback away from reading rock its last rites.

But a touring version of writer-director Ben Elton's We Will Rock You, a jukebox musical featuring the Queen catalog, opens in Miami Tuesday -- Flash! ah! ah!-- just in time to spare listeners from a 24-hour playlist of Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and One Direction.

The musical depicts a bland world of one-size-fits-all Radio Gaga fare pumped out by fictional Internet firm GlobalSoft. Galileo and his sexy paramour Scaramouche arrive, bringing amplification and holy hell-fire to the desolate landscape. Joining them are a motley crew group of Bohemians bent on bringing real rock 'n' roll to an electric guitar-deprived planet. Lyrics from Queen classics like Another One Bites the Dust, Somebody to Love, Under Pressure, Play the Game, Radio Gaga and Killer Queen are used to tell the story.

We Will Rock You strives to tell a fantastical tale. Alas, the future is now, says Tristan Avakian, a We Will Rock You guitarist who has the enviable, if not intimidating, task of playing music and riffs originally conceived by Queen's iconic guitarist Brian May. Founding Queen members May and drummer Roger Taylor have overseen dress rehearsals of the production and have made suggestions in sound and mixing as the show has built since its West End debut in London in 2002. Productions have been staged in Australia, Russia, Japan, Canada, Spain, Germany, Sweden and the United States, among them.

"This thing is multigenerational, it transcends every cultural barrier," Avakian says, hopefully, on the phone from a tour stop in Minneapolis.

But rock, the colorful and distinct kind Queen regularly hoisted onto the pop charts in the '70s and '80s under the leadership of the late Freddie Mercury, is largely absent from popular culture. A glance at the current iTunes Top 200 album chart finds pseudo-rock from British boy band One Direction at No. 10, angry thrash rock from Common Courtesy at No. 18 and classic rockers Boston at No. 44 with its new album, the closest representation to Queen's multilayered style one will find among the pop, country, hip-hop and Christmas albums that otherwise populate the list.

This, apparently, is the world Elton envisioned in 2000 when he began writing the book for We Will Rock You based around Queen's greatest hits. Then, rock was similarly subsumed by perky pop from manufactured acts, Backstreet Boys and NSync.

"It's striking to note the core audience is classic rock fans tapping into a certain resentment," Avakian says. "People tend to ape that which is successful in hopes of being successful themselves. That's natural human tendency. But it's at a ridiculous degree. You literally hear the same chord progression over and over. In the '70s you had Queen, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder. Jeff Beck had a No. 1 record with an instrumental. It was quite a different landscape and that's why this show has enduring value and why this music is timeless and still resonates with an audience. People still need it and nothing is lost to time. Nothing is kitschy, quaint or dated."

Elton, 54, also turned the music of Rod Stewart into a jukebox musical ( Tonight's the Night) but Queen is special, he says.

"Of all the great rock canons, probably the most self-evidently theatrical is Queen. They drew on theatrical sources. They drew on opera. Vaudeville and rock. It's exuberant and all about showmanship so Queen does offer a unique opportunity in theater," Elton says.

The production Miami audiences will see over its six-day run at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts will differ somewhat from its London version. Elton, who is also an author ( High Society), playwright ( Love Never Dies, with Andrew Lloyd Webber) and a TV actor and stand-up comic in Britain, purposely built fluidity into the book so that WWRY, as it's known in the Twitterverse, can remain topical.

When WWRY was conceived social media hadn't been born. The definition of the word "friend" has since morphed into something altogether new thanks to Facebook. Elton responded by adding the Queen hit, You're My Best Friend, to the American run of the musical.

"Social media has made the concept of friends so very different," he says. "There are false and different friendships. No one knows what the fallout will be. There's the death of real shopping. You don't have to meet anymore. You can live your life communicating online.

" WWRY deals with a society where the individual has been subsumed by a net-based homogenized culture. When our two lovers meet and both recognize they are punks, outsiders and lonely individuals, I no longer felt I could ignore what that would mean of being isolated on the net and the discovery of glory and real friendship. That's why I put the song, Best Friend, in the show. It's empowering kids, discovering having a friend you can see and speak to."

Some of the changes are less heady and meant to be silly. When WWRY debuted, Britney Spears and her antics provided fodder to spoof. Thanks to the MTV Video Music Awards in August, Miley Cyrus put twerking into grandma's vernacular. Expect the cast of 24 vocalists and eight band members, who reproduce Queen's lavish Bohemian Rhapsody, to figure out a way to work in a twerk.

The malleability also allowed for the addition of the Buddy character, a Bohemian leader played by actor Ryan Knowles, who will turn 35 during WWRY's Miami run.

"I would totally have a beer with my character in the real world. He's a fun guy to be around," Knowles says, chuckling.

Landing a spot in WWRY was a thrill for the Southern California native who grew up on jazz and the Rat Pack and one notable exception. "I only bought one band's albums growing up and only cared to listen to one band growing up and I was obsessed with Queen's Greatest Hits. When this show came up and I auditioned I thought, 'if I ever do a rock show I want this to be it,'" Knowles says. "I know I will never get tired of hearing the music."

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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(c)2013 The Miami Herald

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