November 2009 Scotland on Sunday

Ben Elton on We Will Rock You

YOU can only imagine the air of despondency around London's Dominion Theatre in May 2002 when the reviews came in for We Will Rock You. The Queen musical had "nothing bohemian, and precious little that's rhapsodic" raged the Guardian. It was, fulminated the Telegraph, "prolefeed at its worst". The Daily Mail declared "pantomime arrived a little early in the West End". The cast of We Will Rock You

"Those reviews nearly killed us," says writer Ben Elton today, with good reason to feel vindicated. He has watched audiences loyally troop to the Dominion for nearly eight years. Around the world, the show has been seen by more than ten million people, a figure about to swell during a two-month run at the Edinburgh Playhouse. The only reason for the delay in mounting a sequel, which Elton says is written and ready to go, is that nobody's sure if London can sustain two Queen musicals at the same time. If ever there was a schism between public and critical opinion, this is it.

"I was very sad," says Elton, who has also co-written the book of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom: Love Never Dies, the forthcoming sequel to Phantom Of The Opera. "You've got 2,000 people screaming and on their feet, having had a wonderful night, and then there's ten people saying it's no good. "Eight years on I feel I've earned the right not to discuss what the reviewers said on the morning after we opened. Eight years – you can't fake it. Audiences, contrary to the opinion of some writers, are not stupid. They're not sheep. If something does not move them and make them laugh, then they won't tell their friends. Our audiences clearly do tell their friends because the only way to run in theatre is on word of mouth. Fortunately, there are enough real reviewers – who are people who've bought a ticket – telling their friends."

Giving a narrative shape to 24 of Queen's best-known songs, Elton's futuristic story is about two beautiful young rebels, Galileo and Scaramouche (who else?), who escape their consumerist society in search of musical liberation. "It's a legend with a couple of heroes, a boy and a girl, fighting vast forces of evil," he says. "Fitting the songs in was not a problem once I'd had the idea of a mock legend – where instead of a sword buried in rock waiting for a hero to save the world, there was a guitar. You've got the intimate and the personal, and the grandiose and the massive – with Queen's music, there's no problem when you've got those parameters. The songs inspired the narrative and the job was joyful."

He makes no claims to weightiness, but the dystopian backdrop does allow him to build in "a little satirical core" about our own homogenised culture where "everything is controlled". He thinks back wistfully to a time when X Factor singles were not automatic Christmas number ones and when we didn't know what movie would be next summer's big hit. He is all too aware, however, that the show would be nothing without the music. Bohemian Rhapsody, which stayed at number one for a solid nine weeks, was the soundtrack to his first taste of freedom when he left home at 16 and, even though he was quick to embrace the energy of punk when he arrived at Manchester University in 1977 ("I was a huge Clash fan at the time"), he never lost his respect for Queen.

"Queen were a big part of my life, but I was also a big punk fan and a big Elvis fan," he says. "I like good music. Queen's music is so varied, from high camp opera to heartbreaking ballads to the most chugging industrial metal – virtually – because it's an incredibly eclectic band. Freddie didn't lead that band; he was a member of a four-piece. Uniquely in the history of pop, all four members of Queen individually wrote number ones. Freddie wrote Bohemian Rhapsody, Brian wrote We Will Rock You, Roger wrote It's A Kind Of Magic and John wrote Another One Bites The Dust. These are four truly great artists and when you put them together the sum of the parts is even greater. That's why it was so exciting to find a narrative context for their music, because it is so incredibly varied."

Still committed to the show after all these years, Elton has had so much fun that he'd love to do it all over again. "The problem was what songs do you not use, which is why I've written the sequel," he says. "There are 20 top ten hits that I haven't used. We only do a snippet of Don't Stop Me Now. But, believe me, you won't be disappointed – you get plenty of Queen music."

We Will Rock You, Playhouse, Edinburgh, Wednesday until 9 January

© Mark Fisher 2009

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