Hollywood superstar and nascent stage producer Robert De Niro flew into London today to officially launch his latest project, the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, to the world's press. Some 200 journalists gathered for the high-profile press conference held at the West End's Dominion Theatre where the £7.5 million production will receive its world premiere on 14 May 2002 (previews from 22 April), after six years in development.

A Shaky Start

The media event started approximately 40 minutes late, with an announcer apologising that De Niro had become stuck on the Tube on his way in from Heathrow airport. When the star did arrive, along with Ben Elton and Queen's Brian May and Roger Taylor, he emerged from a mock-up of Tottenham Court Road Tube station that rose out of the Dominion stage in a cloud of smoke.

The joke didn't raise any smiles from De Niro who, throughout the conference, proved himself, at least on this occasion, to be a man of extremely few words aside from stating that he thinks the show is going to be "terrific". Luckily, Elton, May and Taylor were more forthcoming.

The project was born in 1996 when Robert De Niro, Brian May and Roger Taylor met at the Venice Film Festival. Apparently, De Niro approached the musicians with the suggestion that they create a musical based on their work. That has become We Will Rock You, which is financed by De Niro's Tribeca Productions, along with Queen and Phil McIntyre Productions.

Six Years to Sci-fi

May admitted today that development took so long because "there were so many (story) ideas along the way. We pursued the autobiographical approach for a long time but it just didn't work for us" - not least because it would be too "embarrassing". Then, in mid-2001, comedian and author Elton got involved and came up with the idea for a sci-fi adventure-based book, which he now describes as "The Matrix meets Arthurian legend", a "story that needed to be as big as the music itself".

We Will Rock You is set in the future, in a place that was once called Earth. Globalisation is complete and the evil Killer Queen has banned Rock 'n' Roll in favour of computer-produced cyber stars and Andro Bands. But Resistance is growing amongst the Bohemians who believe in a Golden Age when kids wrote their own songs. They need a hero to help recover the hairy guitar god. Is the one who calls himself Galileo that man?

More than 6,500 performers were auditioned for the 37-strong company that includes stage veterans Nigel Planer, Sharon D Clarke and Alexander Hanson as well as Kerry Ellis (the second understudy to Martine McCutcheon in My Fair Lady), American Tony Vincent (who has appeared on Broadway in Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar), Andrew Derbyshire (a contestant from TV's Pop Idol) and newcomer Hannah Jane Fox.

Making Music

We Will Rock You features no fewer than 31 of Queen's greatest hits, including "Bohemian Rhapsody", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", "Under Pressure", "Radio Gaga" and, of course, "We Will Rock You". And while no new songs have been written for the show, May explained that their existing catalogue has been significantly reworked and restructed.

May believes the band's involvement with the musical signals "not the final chapter for Queen, but the next chapter." Since the death of Freddie Mercury (who Roger Taylor felt "would have loved" We Will Rock You), May felt that it was "great for us to find a new creative outlet."

New York & Beyond

We Will Rock You was originally slated to receive its world premiere in New York but, according to Taylor, Queen felt more comfortable staging it first in their own London backyard. Plans are already underway for other international productions, however, with Broadway first on the agenda and discussions currently taking place with Australia, Scandinavia, Italy and Japan. At today's conference, De Niro even raised the possibility of a film version.

The musical is directed by Christopher Renshaw, choreographed by Arlene Phillips, designed by Mark Fisher and Willie Williams (who has imported more than £1 million worth of LED screens from Hong Kong for the set), with costumes by Tim Goodchild, sound by Bobby Aitken and music supervision by Mike Dixon.

- by Terri Paddock