Brian May interviewed by Baltimore Magazine:
14 October 1023 by Amy Mulvihill
Brian May, Queen guitarist; music supervisor for We Will Rock You
We Will Rock You is launching its U.S. tour at the Hippodrome Oct. 15-20, but I read that neither you nor [Queen drummer] Roger Taylor was a big fan of musicals before this. What made you want to do this?
BRIAN MAY: Well, We Will Rock You is a musical, you know, and we came in to it as a body of people who really didn’t relate that well to the genre of musical theater. We didn’t want to put on something like My Fair Lady. This is rock and roll and it had to be something very different.
So, we kind of acquainted ourselves with the rules and we’re still learning. You come into this with a certain amount of humility obviously, but you want to change the world. So, we kind of acquainted ourselves and we gathered together a team around us, which was partly built for rock and roll people and partly from theatrical people, and it became this great kind of mélange. So, we sort of hesitated calling it a musical because a musical means that old thing, so we said it’s a rock theatrical. It’s something, which is very rock and roll, very organic, but at the same time has the values of the musical theater, which is that you encapsulate the whole story, the whole world in that couple of hours when you’re on the stage.
I’ve read that the show sometimes changes or adds references to appeal to local audiences. Anything planned for Baltimore or the U.S., in general?
Ben Elton (Blackadder) is quite a miraculous writer/producer because he will go in there with every new company and be part of the creative process. He will look at somebody playing [the villain] Khashoggi and say okay, well, maybe we can get you to do this and maybe we can change the script to do this. And the whole production will start to evolve into something, which is rooted in the town where it’s happening.
Queen’s catalogue is so well known and beloved. Were there any changes necessary to present the songs in this new format?
Strangely enough, it wasn’t that difficult to put the songs in there because those songs are root bound. A lot of Queen stuff is about finding yourself, finding freedom ah, breaking away from where you are, breaking into the world. You know, “We Are The Champions,” “I Want to Break Free.” It’s kind of all there.
So yes, most of the songs are delivered intact without even any lyric changes. But there are a couple we took hold of and made them tell the story of We Will Rock You. One is the introduction, which is “Radio Gaga.” “Radio Gaga” becomes a song about what’s happening in the future, everything’s internet, everything’s advertising, everything is kind of pushed into your head, the kids have no freedom to think for themselves. So, that becomes an introductory song to the whole scenario of We Will Rock You, which is a bleak future. The people are in chains, not physically, but mentally, because they’re being fed what we’re being fed now—the whole advertising and Internet saga, marketing, how everything is marketed.
Freddie Mercury was an iconic rock frontman with a remarkable voice. How difficult is it to find people to fill his vocal shoes, so to speak?
It’s a great thing, We Will Rock You, because it has not become a rubber stamp. Most musicals you’ll find are moved from city to city but they are stamped with exactly the same moves, the same way of singing and same way of acting. We Will Rock You has never been that way and we encourage people to bring their own talents in to it and make it what they can make it. I mean there’s a script obviously, and there are certain things which need to happen but, within that there’s a lot of freedom for people to, to be themselves.
But it’s a big ask really, and it was very difficult in the beginning to find people who understood what we were trying to do because obviously you’re auditioning people who have brought up in musical theater. They’re taught how to project, how to make each note last the length of the syllable and it’s very much not what we wanted. We wanted people to be instinctive and to be in a sense rock stars. So, they have to be able to act, they have to be convincing, they have to be able to sing. A lot of them have to be able to dance as well.
And the final big ask is you have to actually be a rock star, and it was hard in the beginning but we were very lucky, we managed to find some great people and it was a really brilliant original team.
From that point on millions of people have seen it now so, people come in and they already know what’s required. And in a sense the hard thing is to say, don’t do it like you’ve seen it done, do it like you feel from the inside so we can keep this show fresh. So, some people will come and try to sing it exactly like the cast album and we go please don’t do this, take another step back, go away and think about it and sing as you would feel if, if you’d lost your best friend. So it’s a constant reaffirmation of the fact that We Will Rock You really is about freedom and not being locked in a box.
Is it strange watching other people sing and play your parts or are you able to divorce yourself from the experience?
Most days it’s great. It was strange in the beginning and I had that itch to get on stage. Funny thing is I still have the itch and occasionally I can indulge it because I’ll go on at the end of the show and play “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And I can be hero. It’s a very nice thing—the cast and band do this incredible job on stage and then I can go on and get all the applause. So, it’s fantastic for me.
But I love being a producer, I love standing back and changing little things and watching the show grow. But, to get down there and get sweaty with the performers is great.