Another one bites the dust: ‘We Will Rock You’ prepares for its last performances

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

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.

Don’t stop me now: Ben Elton, Robert De Niro, Brian May and Roger Taylor in 2002 (Getty) Don’t stop me now: Ben Elton, Robert De Niro, Brian May and Roger Taylor in 2002 (Getty)
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

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee