It’s not surprising to say folks were skeptical when British comedian Ben Elton conceived the idea of a rock musical surrounding the hits of Queen back in 2000, but the result was an hilarious, multi-award-winning phenomenon that has played the West End the past dozen years and been a hit in multiple countries worldwide.
We Will Rock You came to the U.S. for the first time in 2004, with a short run at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, and this past October began its first-ever U.S. tour, starting in Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. The musical comes to the Warner Theatre from June 3-8.
P.J. Griffith, known for his work as St. Jimmy in Broadway’s American Idiot and Jett in the Off-Broadway production of Giant, took on the villainous role of Kashoggi for the American tour.
“My agent saw this role and wanted me to audition for it and at my audition there were like 30 people, including Robert De Niro (the show’s producer) and the surviving members of Queen,” he says. “It was a pretty intense audition process for a big, silly rock musical.”
The Taxi Driver star and his Tribeca studios had approached Queen about doing a bio about Freddie Mercury for film years ago, but instead the project was transformed into a big, broad, sci-fi comedy for the stage, and the legendary actor has been a part of We Will Rock You every step of the way.
“We did a 10 a.m. run through this past September and we all thought it was odd to be doing a rock musical this early, with everyone screaming their faces off, but it turned out it was a private show for De Niro and his son,” Griffith says. “It was really cool. He had come to a couple of rehearsals and it’s been a thrill working with him.”
Griffith describes the show as “a giant farce set in a utopian world where live music and individual thought is outlawed and the country is run by this mega-corporation crushing all individual expression. One kid breaks free and he goes on a Star Wars-esque journey to find love and rock n’ roll.”
As Kashoggi, Griffith plays someone in charge of crushing the revolution, who secretly is in love with rock music.
“Beneath it all, I have leather chaps,” he says. “I have a really funny number I do at the top of Act II every night, it’s exhausting, but this great sci-fi vaudevillian number, a Queen song called ‘Seven Seas of Rhye,” which is very popular in England but virtually unknown here. It’s Rush-esque.”
Griffith went to NYU and studied dramatic acting, and quickly landed a part after graduating with the First National Tour of Mama Mia. That was the last time he was in DC, with that production having played at the National Theatre 11 years ago.
In addition to his stage work, Griffith also has a recurring role on the Good Wife, playing a rock n’ roll preacher.
Like most people his age, Griffith had the cassette of Queen’s Greatest Hits while growing up and knew classic Queen pretty well. He also had a couple of albums so he was familiar with some of the more obscure songs.
Among the songs in the show are familiar tunes like “Another One Bites The Dust,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “We Are The Champions,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and, of course, “We Will Rock You.”
Having been a part of Mama Mia for two years, Griffith knew a thing or two about intense audiences but says We Will Rock You fans have rivaled even that experience.
“The audience reaction to this show has been extreme. You see everything from soccer moms to kids who never heard it before just lose it by the end of the show,” he says. “The show ends with this bombastic rock concert so it’s funny to see all these flaring strobes come up on the audience and it becomes a hilarious party at the end.”
While We Will Rock You may not be DC’s typical show, Griffith believes everyone coming will have a great time.
“It’s loud and bright and it’s more of a rock concert with this crazy plot structured around it,” he says. “As long as someone’s not expecting to see Sunday in the Park with George, they will have fun.”