A new musical, based on songs by one of Britain's best-loved rock groups, Queen, opened at the Dominion Theatre, London, on May 14. Part of the 10 million dollars for the production has been paid for by Hollywood screen legend Robert de Niro. Theatre critics are calling it a "futuristic extravaganza". The success of the musical is proof, 11 years after the death of Freddie Mercury, that Queen are still the champions.
The musical, We Will Rock You, is not the story of the group's worldwide success. "That would be embarrassing," commented Queen guitarist Brian May. Instead, the musical creates a futuristic world that has become homogenized by globalisation, and where musical instruments have been banned. The narrative takes its inspiration from the 31 Queen hits that are featured in the three-hour show. "The show is like the film Matrix, plus Arthurian legend, plus Terminator 2," boasted Queen's guitarist. Queen have not recorded an album since they lost their singer to AIDS in 1991, but the interest in the group is as strong as ever.
Robert de Niro's involvement in the musical began six years ago. Representatives of his production company, Tribeca, met Queen at the Venice Film Festival and discussed the project. The star of Taxi Driver and Goodfellas is not a fan of Queen's music, however. For him it is simply a business opportunity. But for the group's fans, it is a chance to indulge in songs that have rocked the world for three decades.
The story of the band began in 1972, formed out of the ashes of Brian May and bassist Roger Taylor's college group Smile. Both were studying at London Imperial College but subsequently chose a musical career instead of one in biology or astronomy. Smile recorded only one single "Earth", which was a flop. But with new vocalist and showman - Frederick Bulsara (a.k.a. Mercury) - and under a new name, Queen, the band quickly secured a new record deal.
Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar, East Africa. As the son of a diplomat he spent his childhood in Bombay and in other exotic places. As a teenager he moved to England with his family where he met the other members of the band.
Queen's debut single "Keep Yourself Alive", taken from the album Queen I, failed to chart. Initial critical reaction was lukewarm. After their first gigs reviewers suggested that they were trying to mimic Led Zeppelin. For some, though, Mercury resembled Liza Minnelli more than heavy metal singer Robert Plant! Their next albums, Queen II and Sheer Hear Attack, were moderate hits on both sides of the Atlantic. But their fourth album would make Queen into international megastars.
The group started recording in six different studios. The first product of these new sessions was the classical pastiche "Bohemian Rhapsody", which broke all known pop music rules. The new single not only interspersed opera themes among the rock riffs, but was also a radio unfriendly seven minutes long. The lavish promo film to accompany the single started a new trend in the music industry: producing videos to promote records.
The band called the album A Night at the Opera after the Marx Brothers film of the same name. Their gigs began to resemble opera shows, with lights, smoke, fireworks and operetta's fancy dresses, wigs, lace and feathers.
Queen were now regulars in pop music charts all over the world. And the hits just kept coming. November 1977 saw the release of stadium anthems "We Are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You". Queen's promotional antics became as outrageous as the songs. To promote the double A-side single "Bicycle Race/Fat Bottomed Girls" they hired Wimbledon Stadium in London and staged a nude bicycle race, including fifty girls. Then they held a party in New Orleans with naked mud wrestlers, dwarves, jugglers and magicians.
In 1981 Queen became rock pioneers in South America. They played five stadiums in eight days in Argentina. Then they played to the largest ever audience for a single rock concert with over 250,000 people attending their gig in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Queen entered the Guinness Book of Records again when they became rock's highest paid executives.
Freddie Mercury then met Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe and a legendary collaboration resulted in the hit single "Barcelona". Both of them topped a star-studded cast to launch Barcelona's successful bid for the 1992 Olympic Games. It was unusual that rock and opera stars managed to record together such a worldwide bestseller.
The National Union of Students in Britain voted "Bohemian Rhapsody" their all-time favourite song. But Freddie was still not satisfied and declared it in his song "I Want It All". As his increasingly outrageous lifestyle revealed, he probably did want it all, and he probably got most of it.
In 1990 Queen received a special award for their outstanding contribution to British music, and held a 20th anniversary party that went on all night long to celebrate. But unfortunately, Queen's history was about to come to an end.
When Innuendo, Queen's 17th album, was released on November 23, 1991, Freddie Mercury decided to say farewell to his fans. He announced that he had contracted AIDS. "I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me. I hope that everyone will join with me in the fight against this terrible disease," Mercury told the world's press. He died the following day, aged 45.
Ironically, at the time of his demise, Queen's current single was "The Show Must Go On". I'll top the bill/ I'll overkill/ I have to find the will to carry on/ On with the show. The remaining three members of the band announced that without Freddie there was no Queen. Although they occasionally played concerts, it was obvious that there was nobody who would be able to replace such a fantastic vocalist and star.
But the musical We Will Rock You, now wowing theatre audiences in London, proves that Queen and their songs still strike a chord with millions of music fans the world over. The show will indeed go on.
- Beata Joanna Przedpelska