While most theater people were following the Broadway opening of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, another London-born show also recently made its New York debut – one sporting far less acclaim but a great deal of commercial success, and even some historic value as one of the earliest mega-hit jukebox musicals.
I am referring to We Will Rock You, the Queen jukebox musical, which played four performances at the oversized Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden (which makes the Lyric Theatre feel like the Helen Hayes) as part of a low-budget, non-Equity tour. As much as I would like to reference the show’s specific cast and creative team members, no playbills were provided at the performance I attended. There were, however, plenty of opportunities to purchase popcorn and beer.
I previously attended We Will Rock You in the West End around the time of its 10th anniversary. (It ran from 2002 to 2014.) It imagines a dystopian future where a group of outlaws opposes cyberspace tyrants and longs to create love music – all the while incorporating famous Queen songs, including “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which serves as a post-curtain-call encore). The plot is really not so different from the post-apocalyptic one behind Bat Out of Hell, the Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf musical, which played a multi-week run at City Center over the summer following an aborted national tour.
Perhaps We Will Rock You did not previously come to New York out of concern that it would be panned by critics. But given the number of embarrassingly terrible jukebox musicals to come along since Mamma Mia!, had We Will Rock You premiered in London today, I doubt that critical reception would be of any concern in terms of bringing it to Broadway. The supposed justification for the current tour was the popularity of the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
Call me crazy or lazy, or someone with exceedingly low expectations, but I enjoyed – or at least appreciated – a good deal of We Will Rock You. Like the most successful jukebox musicals (i.e. Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys), We Will Rock You offers a huge number of familiar pop-rock songs that have broad appeal. Compare that with, say, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, which relies on a far more limited number of hit songs from a number of different writers. While the plot of We Will Rock You may border on ridiculous and perplexing, there is a wishful sincerity and an appreciation for authentic rock performance behind it.
With its skimpy design elements and young cast of unknowns, the tour resembled a high school production. Strangely, the low-key context of the New York premiere of We Will Rock You may have actually bolstered its appeal. Had it come to Broadway for an open-ended run, it would have certainly faced scrutiny and sarcasm. But by coming to MSG for just a few performances, it played almost exclusively to Queen fans who were probably just looking for a good time. Perhaps more jukebox musicals should follow its example: Play to the fans and then make a quick exit.