Ben Elton on the London return of We Will Rock You

The definitive Queen musical heads back to London next summer to remake West End history

Eight years ago, the giant gold statue of Freddie Mercury was lifted down from its place above the Dominion theatre at Tottenham Court Road. A London landmark for over a decade, Freddie was once an integral part of the West End – watching over Ben Elton’s We Will Rock You as it went from a shaky first week back in May 2002 to one of the biggest musical productions in the world. A UK tour followed, as did openings in everywhere from Sydney, Singapore and South Africa to Las Vegas. 

Now finally coming home in 2023, We Will Rock You begins a 12-week stint at The London Coliseum from 2 June, bringing the show to the same venue where Mercury performed his historic Royal Ballet performance in 1979. 

We sat down with Elton to talk Queen, legacy and theatre’s greatest comeback.

This must be the announcement you’ve been waiting to talk about since 2014…

I can’t tell you how much it all means. The reasons we left the Dominion were numerous. We’d hoped we could have transferred at the time, but you know, there were no theatres available. The Dominion is vast. So we had to leave, even though there was still a huge appetite for the show. 

What did that feel like at the time? 

It was a great shame. After 12 years we were a bit of a London institution – having Freddie at the end of Tottenham Court Road, you know? But all good things come to an end. Which is why it feels so good that we’re at a new beginning now with a new production. It’s not the Dominion production any more, it’s a whole new one directed by me, in consultation with Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor] who, as ever, are all over it. They remain as hands on as me. So we’re all so thrilled. We Will Rock You was born in London. Queen were born in London, and it’s where We Will Rock You should be.  

The London Coliseum is such a historic venue too – especially so for Queen. Are you looking forward to having that history feed into the new show? 

I mean, in a way it changes nothing for us – we deliver 110% every night, even though that’s obviously mathematically impossible. We Will Rock You has played in modern theatres, arenas, beautiful old theatres, enormous barn like cinemas… so we can deliver wherever. But, of course, to go to a theatre which is in itself one of the greatest and most famous theatres in the world is just incredible. It’s a landmark for musical theatre. And as you know, it’s a very famous opera house, and those old operas inspired Freddie – they were the We Will Rock You shows of their day. Freddie, famously, did the ballet there too. So yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s important. We don’t need it, but bloody hell… it’s amazing to be in such a beautiful venue. 

A lot has changed in the last eight years. We’ve had the Queen biopic in cinemas, Queen and Adam Lambert played the jubilee. Do you think the legacy of the band has deeped since you’ve been away from London? 

There’s no doubt. I don’t think they’d deny that either. In 1999, when Queen first approached me with the most exciting collaboration of my entire professional life, Queen were big. But they weren’t quite the absolute monolithically established institutional cultural giants that they are now. Freddie had been gone about eight or nine years at the time. Brian was the first to say it, but I think We Will Rock You was the start of what has become the inevitable sort of bedding in of Queen as part of British culture. I mean, they’ve got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I like to think that Freddie would be delighted and astonished to see it. 

Did you want to change anything this time around? The show has always evolved over time, but did you have any bigger plans? 

I’ve made a bit of a rod for my own back in that I’ve always tried to keep it a little bit up to date. But I mean, we started off with gags about Mr. Blobby and the Wombles…  We have a tribute to Elvis in the show, and even he isn’t the figure now that he was 20 years ago, when people were still seeing him in supermarkets. That scene remains, because I’ll tribute Elvis till the day I die, and I know Brian and Roger are very happy with that, but yeah, you can’t be you can’t be riffing on Mr Blobby anymore! I mean, I take some pride in the fact that in 2002 there was no streaming. There were no iPhones. No iPods. And our story is about a world where all music is streamed directly from a central computer. That was supposed to take 300 years, and it only took 20.

It is a bit scary how much you got right… 

Well, yeah! This was show about a time when live music dies, and when people keep slowly getting sucked into the internet. Now we’re all staring at our phones all day. Three years into our run at the Dominion, the iPod was introduced. From that moment on, the whole nature of the story shifted slightly. Brian and Roger are so supportive – they see that the satire is as important as the music, and that’s about as flattering as you can get.

Queen - Killer Queen (Top Of The Pops, 1974)

Do you remember your own first experience with Queen’s music? 

Oh absolutely. I was 14 when ‘Killer Queen’ was out. It was the first Queen song I ever heard, and I remember seeing them on Top Of The Pops. They were extraordinary and strange and weird. I think they’re all wearing silver. I know Freddie was. You know, it was magnificent and interesting and different all at the same time. I remember that baffling guitar thing that was in the middle of ‘Killer Queen’ too. But the real impact for me, like for so many people of my age, was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. It was a generation defining moment. 

I left home when I was 16, which is pretty young. I wanted to get into drama, and that was why I didn’t want to stay at school. So I went to a tech in Warwickshire and I lived a caravan. God knows I wouldn’t let my kids do it at 16… But I remember living there when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was No.1. Pretty much for the entire first term of my drama A Level. All that loneliness as a 16 year old, all that fear, had ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the background. So yeah, they mean something really very special to me. 

Do you ever reflect on that now, when you’re up on stage in Vegas or Australia with Brian and Roger? 

It’s funny the turns that life takes. The idea that when I was 16 I could ever imagine I’d one day be working with them, and that they’d become like brothers to me… Brian and Roger and I have spent an awful lot of time together over the last 20 years and I’ve been lucky enough to count them as genuine friends. But yeah, I’m often reminded that it’s an extraordinary piece of good fortune in my life, and also something so utterly unexpected. But then everything in life is unexpected. As John Lennon said, “life is what happens while you’re making other plans”. And I certainly had never planned that I would get the chance to write the Queen musical. But oh my god, I’m glad I did.

We Will Rock You opens at the London Coliseum for 12 weeks only from 2 June 2023. Tickets are available here