27 May 2014
It’s the end of a West End era. Alice Jones meets the cast, creative team and the obsessive fan who has seen the show 250 times
ALICE JONES Author Biography Tuesday 27 May 2014
On 1 June, the London landscape will look a little different. Or a small, very busy, corner of it will. For 12 years a 20ft-tall gold statue of Freddie Mercury has glittered above the Dominion Theatre on the corner of Tottenham Court Road, welcoming theatre-goers to We Will Rock You. But on Saturday, shortly after the gong sounds on “Bohemian Rhapsody”, Freddie will be taken down as the hit musical closes for good.
Since it opened on 14 May 2002, We Will Rock You has played to 6.6 million people over 4,600 performances. It is the Dominion’s longest-running show by 9 years and the 10th longest-runner in the history of the West End. In that time it has spawned a European arena tour and shows around the world from Melbourne to Vegas, which have been seen by 16 million people.
It is a remarkable achievement by West End standards. In the current climate where new musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and other poppy behemoths backed by Simon Cowell and the Spice Girls have opened and closed within a matter of months, it’s all the more remarkable. Add in the reviews that greeted the show and its longevity becomes nothing less than astonishing.
“Trite and tacky,” said The Independent. “A shallow, stupid and totally vacuous new musical,” said the Daily Mail. “A pathetic, adolescent piece of work… Prolefeed at its worst,” said The Daily Telegraph.
“We read the reviews and thought, ‘We’re not going to be here very long’,” recalls Tony Edge, associate director. “We didn’t think we’d run 12 weeks, never mind 12 years.”
The fact was, it had to run. At the time, it was the most expensive musical ever staged in the West End, at a cost of £6.5m. On paper, it was pretty spectacular – music and lyrics by Queen, with Brian May and Roger Taylor as music supervisors, script and direction by Ben Elton, choreography by Arlene Phillips and a cast including Nigel Plane and Kerry Ellis.
“It was the most expensive because none of us knew what we were doing,” says Phil McIntyre, the producer who owns the biggest stake in the show, alongside Queen and Robert De Niro’s company Tribeca. Like Elton, May and Taylor, he had never worked on a musical before. “It was born in a storm of optimism, but not a lot of experience. I went in the night after the opening with De Niro and all of the great and good, and there were 860 people in a theatre that holds 2,200. There was tumbleweed going around the place. I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s all my money.’ Terrifying. On those numbers, you’d lose £100,000 a week. In 10 weeks, that’s a million.”
“It was awful,” recalls Kerry Ellis, who was cast as Meat when May saw her understudying for Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady. She has since had starring roles in Les Misérables and Wicked. “Les Mis didn’t get great reviews on opening night and it’s still going strong 25 years later. But, of course, everybody feared for their jobs after that reaction. The difference is that the producers and Queen rose to it.”
They did. May and Taylor were coaxed into interviews they did not want to give, the cast performed on Parkinson and, most famously, at the Queen’s Jubilee in June 2002. It’s now company lore that Brian May’s performance atop Buckingham Palace saved the show. Fifteen months after opening, We Will Rock You broke even – and then it just carried on going.
On a Thursday evening in May 2014, the Dominion Theatre is three-quarters full. Families, tourists and couples mill in the foyer, buying popcorn and £6 programmes. There is a Freddie Mercury Suite upstairs, where corporate guests can enjoy pre-show canapés, and a Laurent Perrier champagne bar in the stalls, where this is no queue. A shop sells neon WWRY hoodies for £40, souvenir Brian May sixpences, wristbands and glowsticks.
To recap, the show is set in a dystopian future where everything is for sale (including, presumably WWRY hoodies), real music has died and only identikit cyberpop remains. It is down to rebel kindred spirits, Galileo and Scaramouche, both incidentally looking for Somebody to Love, and a bunch of Bohemians, to overthrow the Killer Queen, cross the Seven Seas of Rhye and bring rock music back to life. Cue “We Will Rock You”. If it sounds silly, it is. The plot is little more than a preposterously brittle skeleton to hang 25 Queen songs on. They still sound excellent, but since many of them make little sense, it’s best not to ask too many questions. Elton himself admitted the challenge of working “Bohemian Rhapsody” into a narrative. “What the hell is it about? By the time Freddie gets to ‘Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me’, he’s lost me.” In the event, he simply bracketed it on as an encore. A screen asking “Do you want more?” is all the excuse needed for a standing ovation and holler-along. And everyone goes home happy – or hoarse, at least.
“Ultimately, the show has classic Queen tracks, sung brilliantly”, says Arlene Phillips. “It’s the only show I’ve ever been to – and I’ve probably been 120 times – where you see people going in with their diamonds and people going in with their backpacks on, not speaking a word of English.”
For all the hydraulics and computer graphics, it’s a simple formula, with one killer ingredient – the music of Queen, which acts like a kind of Esperanto of entertainment. Like Cirque du Soleil, We Will Rock You rakes it in because it appeals to all nationalities and ages. “In the rehearsal room, we knew we had a very good, enjoyable product,” says Edge. Product? “We knew exactly what it was. We knew it wasn’t Les Mis, it was about entertaining.”
The show also has a slavish fanbase, the Proud Bohemians, whose repeat viewings have helped it to its 12th year. Dawn Laws, 51, has seen the show 250 times. She has a We Will Rock You tattoo on her leg and four tattoos of Killer Queen. “Sometimes we go twice a week. It has got us through births, deaths, funerals. We go there to escape. It’s the music, it’s funny, and you can sing and dance along.”
The decision to close came at the beginning of the year, against the wishes of Elton and Queen. Revenue had dipped, with poor mid-week sales, and the Dominion is now overdue for refurbishment. For the cast and crew, the news came as a shock, particularly for the small number of lifers who have been in the show for as long as the jokes about Teletubbies and the old Wembley stadium. As associate director, Edge has kept the show in shape for 12 years. He watches it every evening, either in the theatre or on a monitor backstage. “You get to six years, then to eight and 10 years, and you start to think you’re invincible. But, of course, these things have a life.” He has spent most of his career in the Dominion, having worked on Time in the 1980s and Grease after that. “Now, like everybody else here, I’m looking for work.”
Giorgia Barberi started in the original ensemble before working up to associate choreographer. “It was a big shock, but now it’s gone from being sad to appreciating that we’ll be part of the end. I don’t even know how we’re going to hold together on the last day, it’s going to be very, very emotional.”
The show plans to go out on a high, with May and Taylor on stage and past cast members packing the stalls. Its closure doesn’t herald the end of the jukebox musical. Last month Mamma Mia! celebrated its 15th birthday in the West End. The Commitments, also produced by McIntyre, is approaching its first birthday in a year marked by musical flops. And May and Elton are now embarking on WWRY2, tentatively titled The Show Must Go On. “They’re working very hard on it,” says McIntyre. “It would be groundbreaking to do a sequel in theatre.” It would be groundbreaking to make it a hit. Lloyd Webber’s tedious Phantom follow-up Love Never Dies was a flop, but the number of Hollywood sequels suggest it could be done. And there are plenty of Queen songs left.
“A lot of people start with an idea that they think is great. They don’t think, ‘Is there a market for it?’” says McIntyre. “For a hit musical you have to have lots of elements that are a bit silly and naff. You don’t have to make it too difficult for anybody – which doesn’t say a lot for it in a way. But I think you can be popular and clever.” Even if you can’t please the critics, too.
‘We Will Rock You’, Dominion Theatre, London W1 (wewillrockyou.co.uk) to 31 May.