The continuing evolution of 'We Will Rock You'

As TPAC prepares for the first North American tour of We Will Rock You, a 'rock theatrical' based upon the catalog of Queen, director/bookwriter Ben Elton takes a moment to talk about the evolution of the show as it parodies pop culture.

Way back in the year 2000, I got the chance to write the book for a musical based around Queens greatest hits. Queen had a terrific sense of humour and also quite a futuristic vibe (Flash! Ah ah!). Also, a kind of legendary feel, so I came up with a comical Dystopian ‘legend’. Sword in the Stone meets the Matrix. Except the sword was a guitar.

The story imagined a world where technology is sufficiently advanced to allow the media entertainment machine to download the latest homogenized pop music, games and videos directly to every consumer on Earth at once. Thus creating a bleak and lonely world where the most significant relationship an individual has is with their personal computer.

Clearly events have rather overtaken what, at the time, still seemed a futuristic vision. The ‘wrist held’ communicators of our original design through which the kids downloaded their every influence are scarcely a futuristic idea now everyone has a smart phone. There was no American Idol in 2000, no YouTube and no social networking. For a story about the death of live rock through a Net empowered corporate media machine, these are not developments that are possible to ignore.

Back then, I called my brave new world Planet Mall, imagining Earth as one vast shopping precinct. A couple of years ago, I changed the name to the iPlanet. Nobody goes shopping in real time anymore.

And that’s the great and exiting privilege I have with We Will Rock You. Because it’s still running in London and now being produced around the world, I get the chance to update the script.

For example, in the story, our two teen rebels are captured and the police plant tracking bugs in their heads. These days we’re all tracked; my wife can see where our three children are at all times by looking at ‘Find My Phone’.  Most young people actually announce their whereabouts themselves on social networking. If the cops want to get someone they can just follow their tweets. Because of WWRY’s longevity, I get to play with these developments and work them into the script.

We even get to use different songs when it feels right. Queen’s hit catalogue is too vast to include them all, so for instance, You’re My Best Friend is not in the London show. There is, however, a scene where our two leads run away and discuss their loneliness and isolation. They realize that they are both friendless. These days, with the arrival of social networking, loneliness and isolation have taken on a very different form. It tends to be experienced not so much in the corners of cafes and schoolrooms but via headphones and a tiny screen. In 2013, it seemed ridiculous for two kids to discuss friendship without reference to Facebook. Young people now live in a world where it’s possible to have many virtual ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ and yet still be entirely isolated and alone. Factoring this into the story has added a whole new layer in which real friendship in real time is viewed with suspicion as almost deviant behavior. The new dialogue with this very changed emphasis brought the song You’re My Best Friend into the show.

Likewise, the stunning outreach and ubiquity of Broadband which has occurred in the last decade has led me to introduce the rock anthem Now I’m Here (Now I’m There) into the evil Killer Queen’s repertoire.

Apart from addressing the broader social and technological changes, I also get the chance to update moments of topical humor. In the story, a group of rebels called Bohemians fashion themselves on half forgotten Rock Gods and so the script is peppered with references to rock and pop. Britney Spears for instance is the subject of a gag, but during the time of her very public emotional problems I took it out because what had been a fun and supportive joke suddenly felt dark and wrong. Happily, Britney’s back in the show but during her absence, Posh Spice, Hilary Duff and Jessica Simpson all took a bow. Clay Aiken was a presence in the early days but Idols come and go; he’s moved on and so have we. When I was looking at the script for our upcoming US tour, I put in a reference to Hannah Montana. Since then, Miley Cyrus has twerked her way to ubiquity and so the gag had to change. Twerking is in the show now of course, but I think it will have a short shelf life.

In the long run, the show is a celebration of live music. Something well worth celebrating in a world where the majority of ‘live’ music is a semi lip synched dance show taking place in a vast arena. And which the audience experience through a sea of camera phones including their own. Long live rock n’ roll.


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