Only a badly done cult musical could elicit such mixed reactions. While large sections of the audience screamed their approval, clapped spontaneously, and waved their arms to the music, others sat in stunned confusion, watching as a spectacular flop played out before them and resisting the urge to shield their eyes against the bright concert-style strobe lights.
Queen and Ben Elton’s We Will Rock You, a jukebox musical set in a futuristic dystopia, is a mess of anachronism. While all futuristic stories must to some extent mirror our own lives–where else would we get inspiration?–We Will Rock You fails by trying to combine not just two eras, but three. Rock and roll culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s is superimposed on modern internet culture, which is then superimposed on a totalitarian society located on “a planet formerly known as Earth.” One of the least natural moments of the show comes when several rocker bohemians start twerking to mock a newcomer whom they think resembles Miley Cyrus. No one dressed like that ever twerked. Ever.
Some of the show’s weaknesses stem from the fact that it never quite made the transition from concert to musical. While at a concert it might be fine for the instruments to drown out the singers some of the time, in a musical the lyrics are supposed to advance the plot, so it’s important for the audience to hear them. Likewise, while part of the concert experience might be getting blinded by strobe lights pointed straight at the audience, most theatergoers would rather be able to see the acting happening onstage. Even more importantly, musicals not only have songs and plots, but the two blend together seamlessly. While We Will Rock You has many songs and even a chain of events that could probably be called a plot, the two do not necessarily relate to one another and certainly do not twine together.
It’s easy to list what doesn’t work about the musical. The love story that takes up about half of the show makes very little sense, especially in the second act. The character Scaramouche, the female lead, is constantly contradicting herself and changing to suit the male characters around her, despite seeming strong and independent at times. The actors frequently pause for laughter, despite the fact that the show is not very funny and most of the “jokes” are just modern pop culture references. The major theme of the show–that rock is the most powerful form of self-expression ever invented–goes unquestioned for the entire production; everyone believes this is true, from the skeptical Scaramouche to the creepy totalitarian dictator. For any audience member not in agreement, much of the show is hard to swallow. And after all the contradiction, confusion, bright lights, and overpowering instruments, the ending gives little closure.
Despite all of this, however, there are still a few parts of the musical that work. There is some effective social commentary in the way the show is set in a future in which one corporation owns the whole world and uses everyone’s internet addiction to control what everyone knows, thinks, and does. Ruby Lewis, as the female lead, has a voice powerful enough to penetrate the back of the theater and beautiful enough that it’s a tragedy when she stops. Lewis’s blend with Brian Justin Crum, her male counterpart in this touring production, is so perfect that it’s as if the two were designed to sing duets.
These positive aspects aren’t nearly enough to keep the musical afloat, though, especially for the eleven years that it’s been playing in London’s West End. There’s only one good explanation for the show’s longevity: Queen and Ben Elton know their base. The target audience for We Will Rock You is not a theater-going crowd; it’s a group of die-hard Queen fans who will watch anything that includes live performances of the songs they love, sung and played by talented musicians. It that sounds like you, by all means enjoy the show while it’s here in Minnesota. If you’re a more passive Queen fan or have any interest in well-done musical theater, on the other hand, do yourself a favor and skip the show