We Talk to Ben Elton
With We Will Rock You preparing to open at the Sunderland Empire for a three week run as part of its first national tour we took the opportunity to ask author and director Ben Elton about the challenges of writing this, his second, musical
What were some of the challenges of creating an original musical from previously established material?
Right from the start I knew that Bohemian Rhapsody was going to cause me sleepless nights. How do you find a new and satisfactory narrative context for one of the most famous and much loved pieces of popular music ever produced? And while we’re on the subject what the Hell is it about? “Mama, just killed a man” is pretty clear but by the time Freddie Mercury gets to “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me” he’s lost me. Brian May and Roger Taylor could not tell me when I asked them (although intriguingly, Roger said that he might tell me one day) nonetheless, when I began talking informally to Queen about developing a stage musical featuring their most memorable work we all knew that Bo Rap could not be ignored. Quite apart from anything else Brian and Roger were determined to see the entire song staged live, something even Queen themselves had never attempted. They reckoned we’d need about forty professional singers, as it happens I thing we’ve got away with thirty.
Did you think Bohemian Rhapsody would be the most difficult number to combine in to the musical?
Yes, I knew that Bohemian Rhapsody would be difficult, not least because all my friends kept asking me what I would do with it. What I had not anticipated was that the first problem I would encounter would be Freddie Mercury’s voice. This was certainly the last thing I expected when I opened the beautifully package three album box set of their greatest hits that EMI had sent round…… But hang on a minute, surely some mistake here, three albums of greatest hits? That can’t pass without comment. We all know that the term ‘greatest hits album’ is music industry parlance for “One and a half hits plus a bunch of tracks that even the band can’t remember recording”. Every pop artist produces a greatest hits compilation, usually during that brief period between their second single and the termination of their recording contract. I am expecting Bob the Builder’s any day now. It is a rare thing indeed for any band’s greatest hits compilation to actually be a greatest hits compilation, featuring nothing but genuine chart hits but Queen have managed three such albums over the years. Only their mother’s and the Guinness Book of Records bothers to keep track of the statistics any more.
What did listening to the greatest hits tell you about the music?
Listening to all these classics, reminded once more, as you would have been, at the scale, breadth and sheer joy of them and yet having my enjoyment slightly dulled by the growing realisation that the late, great Freddie Mercury’s voice was going to make my job a lot more difficult. I hadn’t expected this, obviously he wasn’t going to sing in the show, he’s already done his bit and gone to hang out with Elvis and Buddy and John and George. The thing was his diction, it was just too good, every lyric counted, you could hear them all, in fact, to my surprise, I found that I knew them all. This is rarely the case with great rock music no matter how often you hear a song the bulk of the lyric remains pretty much up to the listener. Who amongst us could honestly say that they had the faintest idea what Mick and Keef’s Honky Tonk Woman was actually doing apart from being in Memphis? We are all aware that Michael Jackson said “don’t stop till you get enough” but enough what? He doesn’t make it clear. Even The King himself loved to slur a bit, at the beginning of All Shook Up he can quite clearly be heard singing “A Blessa my soul, what’s a wrong with me?” but in much of what follows he fails to answer his own question. I think that a fuzzy tree is involved but it seems unlikely.
Of course Freddie Mercury is not the only singer who sang clearly, you can hear most of what the Beatles said, some of what Bob Dylan said and we certainly knew that Joe Strummer and the Clash were pretty annoyed about things. Few rock stars have ever been so monumentally cavalier with diction as Mick Jagger, but the point about Freddie was that fast or slow, high or low you could hear everything. Queen take their lyrics very seriously and Freddie always did them justice. People know Queen songs, they may not always know what they are about, but they know them, the words mean different things to different people and that meant that they were not going to fit into any easily imagined context.
You were not the first person who had tried to make a musical out of the Queen songs were you?
When I came into the picture the band had been trying for some years to solve the problem I now faced. Since the mid nineties (some years before Mama Mia opened as Jim Beach their manager was at pains to out) Queen’s had been working with Robert De Niro’s production company in New York to develop a stage musical. They had been attempting to create a biography of Freddie and had failed I think because in truth the music of Queen is too varied and intriguing to readily fit so specific a tale. Queen’s music is not Freddie’s story, the songs belong to all of us, they have been part of our life stories too. Besides which never forget that Queen are a band, a genuine artistic collective.
Indeed they are unique in all recording history in that all four members individually wrote number one’s. It’s an incredible achievement which even the Beatles did not equal. Everyone knows that Freddie and Brian wrote brilliant songs but a lot of jaws drop when I point out that John Deacon the quiet bass player wrote “Another One Bites the Dust” and “You’re My Best Friend” while Roger Taylor the drummer gave us “Radio Ga Ga” and “It’s a Kind of Magic” songs which it could be said defined early Eighties Queen just as much as Freddies “Rhapsody” and Brian’s “We Will Rock You” defined the band in the Seventies.
How did you come up with your story when having to work with so much high quality material that was already in the public domain?
Queen were the sum of four brilliant parts that made an even greater whole and in the end in order to find my story I had to stop thinking about the songs individually, stop worrying about what stories they told, or didn’t tell as in the case of the more obscure once. Instead I needed to concentrate on the spirit of the whole body of work. The spirit of the band itself. I realised that the reason Queen’s work is so effective and continues to mean so much to successive generations is that it works on so many levels, you can’t not pin it down and should not try too. It is intriguing, challenging, achingly romantic, brutally cynical and at once both sad and hilarious. Just like Bo Rap itself in fact.
Once I began searching for a story that reflected the feel of the word and music rather than it’s literal content I began to have enormous fun. This was not pop music but rock music some of the most famous rock ever written and Legendary music should have a legendary context. I began to think of legends both new and old, from King Arthur to The Terminator. Heroic myths in which brave individuals take on the vast monolythic force of evil systems.
Once I realised that my story could be as big, as bold, as majestic and as tongue in cheek as Queen itself I found that Freddies beautiful phrasing was no longer a problem at all, nor was the intriguing ambiguity of lyrics like Bohemian Rhapsody. For the best myths are filled with secrets, whispers, clues, tricks and hidden meanings, this is what I started to find inside the songs. From that point on the story began to write itself.
Did you ever have to consider altering any songs to make them fit your story?
At my lowest ebb on the project Brian and Roger had generously discussed the possibility of rewriting certain lyrics in order to help me out, John Deacon had also given his permission. Looking back this would have been madness, not just because people know and love those words so well but because the songs work so well, every word is in it’s proper place. The story had to grow from the songs and not vice versa. In the end we have changed barely a handful of words in the entire score, the odd ‘he’ has changed to ‘she’ and Roger has slipped a reference to the Internet into Radio Ga Ga, that sort of thing. We have not managed to include all the chart hits because if we did We Will Rock You would be longer than Wagner’s ring. There are thirty seven much loved songs in the show but we have failed to find room for twenty three more let alone the numerous well known album tracks that were never released as singles. Rare indeed is the band that has enough hits to carry a two and a half hour musical , the Mighty Queen have enough for two! Perhaps we should start thinking about a sequel.
We Will Rock You opens at the Sunderland Empire on June 10th and runs until the 27th.