Ben Elton has enjoyed a lifelong immersion in words.
From successful TV shows like Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, to a cavalcade of acclaimed standalone novels, to full length theatrical plays – it seems that Ben Elton’s pen has traipsed joyfully through all of the successes possible within the creative world.
Musical Theatre fans may recognise Ben’s name as the book writer for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies, but it is another of Ben’s musicals for which he is speaking to AussieTheatre today.
We Will Rock You is in the middle of a national search for a cast to tour Australia in 2016. Based on the music of Queen, WWRY has astounded audiences all around the world and now it’s our turn.
Before Ben and his team work on the question of ‘who’s on next?’ he took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with AussieTheatre’s Chris Fung about writing, and life, and what he’s looking for when auditioning for one of his shows.
In conversation with Ben Elton
CHRIS: When you first sat down with the people who talk to the people who represent the people who work with Queen – how did you pitch the idea for this musical?
BEN: Well, there was no distance. I went straight to them – well, I went straight to their manager Jim Beach – who is really a member of Queen. He has Freddie’s vote – in fact they are a democracy, they never decide anything unless they all agree, so Freddie bequeathed his vote to Jim.
They actually came to me, and their idea was to use their uniquely theatrical songs, and really they are such theatrical songs –from Opera to vaudeville, the theatrical element is really a part of their work. Jim had an idea for a Freddie biography, and I said no – I don’t really see it like that, the music was written by all of them. I don’t think it’s about Freddie it’s about all of us, it’s about all of our lives. And they all agreed with that and said “well if you have an idea come to us”. And I did. So I had the idea for WWRY, a dystopian vision about a world where live music is banned.
Queen is all about community. That’s why they get played in stadiums. That’s why every wedding they put on ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ – and all the grannies get up and all the kids get up. That’s why you go to a stadium and everyone’s singing ‘We are the Champions’. They are uniquely communal. They are really about appealing to our senses – and I think that’s what the story should be about – a world where we’re all increasingly living online, digitised, our own little lives, social networking, although this was all before social networking.
And so that was my idea for WWRY, and they loved it.
CHRIS: Well that was my next question actually, how did they initially respond, because a few of the members of Queen actually came out and said that they weren’t the biggest fans of Musical Theatre as a genre didn’t they?
BEN: Particularly Roger! Roger liked to tell you that he hates musicals and then you say, “Well what are you saying? Are you really saying that you don’t think My Fair Lady is a work of greatness?” and he would say “Well look, I can see it’s great – but look a lot of people hate musicals.”
I’m actually not sure that Roger would say now that he hates Musicals as much. It’s funny that they’ve kind of become cool. I mean Bono and The Edge have written one, Cyndi Lauper’s written one, U2 have written one, Tim Minchin’s written one. We see Spring Awakening being such a contemporary piece of original work. But the funny thing is, what Roger didn’t realise is, and what a lot of people don’t realise is, Musical Theatre has always been ground breaking. Sure there’s lots and lots of nice bits of entertainment. Lots of Sound of Music. (Personally I love the Sound of Music, I think it’s a work of genius, Roger finds it a piece of sugar.) Hey, but what about Brecht and Weill. Not everybody knows that ‘Mack the Knife’ was a number from a musical, The Threepenny Opera. From a musical written by 2 communists in Germany in the 1920s. Music Theatre has always had always had its subversive and ground breaking side. So I always tell all this to Roger and he’d say “Shut up, I’m bored with this”. But he does love one musical, and that’s We Will Rock You.
CHRIS: So you’ve always been a Musical Theatre fan?
BEN: Always. I played the Artful Dodger in Amateur Theatre when I was 12 years old. I’ve always known it was a great art form. When I was young, it always had this vibe that it was for grannies. People see it that way butI mean it’s not true. It’s not true that Musicals are naff. I’ve always loved them, because I could always see that there was something special about it. I mean not all of them. There’s lots of shit musicals. But I mean there’s lots of shit novels, there’s lots of shit plays – that doesn’t mean that all of them are shit.
CHRIS: How do you know when the things you’re writing are shit?
BEN: I never think they’re shit. Or I wouldn’t write it.
CHRIS: Do you have friends that you –
BEN: – Yeah obviously I take a lot of advice. I have an editor on my novels and I’m developing a new sitcom at the moment at the BBC and of course I’ve got a producer who questions a lot of things. I mean I’ve done stuff which retrospectively I’ve thought I could have done a bit better but at the time I think it’s brilliant. Everything I’m doing I think is brilliant. That’s what drives me on – I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was good. I mean I’m not saying it *is* good I’m just saying I *think* it’s good. But that’s the only way to write something good, is to please yourself. My only advice to any writer is, to quote Polonius from Hamlet “Above all, to thine own self be true”. Because if you’re trying to sit down and go “Well I wanna write a musical. That was a hit so I’m gonna try and recreate that. I’m gonna write a novel. I wanna appeal to a certain type of audience.” –
– Audiences are cleverer than that. They know when they’re being patronised. They know when they’re being manipulated. Good art is always organic. It’s always a new idea. Nobody could have guessed that Mamma Mia! was going to be a hit – in fact they all thought it was going to be a failure. It was a great idea and the public found it. Same goes for WWRY, you can’t design a hit, you just have to follow your talent, follow your inspiration and hope that other people like it.
One thing I can tell you is: if you write exactly what you like you’re not guaranteed to get a hit by any means. But if you try and write something you think someone else might like, you are guaranteed to get a failure. You’ve got to just believe in yourself. Take criticism of course! Listen to friends and enemies alike. But in the long run, you have to believe in what you’re doing.
CHRIS: So ever since you were a young Ben Elton, you never really had this issue of confidence –
BEN: – I sometimes have periods where I’m less confident about what I’m doing than others, basically we all have self doubt – but you have to believe.
Look when Freddie brought ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – you know, he said to the band “this is going to sound crazy, half of it is basically opera” but you know the band went, “that sounds fantastic let’s go!” and Brian wrote the DURRNURRNURRNURR [guitar noises] – he put in guitar riffs and suddenly the band were riffing on something which everybody, including the record company said “It’s crazy, you can’t have a 7 minute pop song, you can’t do this.” But they believed. They probably had doubt. They probably had the fingers crossed and they were probably shitting themselves. Well, I know they were, they were thinking who’s gonna listen to a 7 minute song? You have to overcome that self doubt – I mean you’re an idiot if you don’t have self-doubt, that’s just silly, that’s just being arrogant.
CHRIS: So how did they find you to write this Queen musical?
BEN: Well because I’m fairly easy to find in Britain, I’m very well known, I’ve written a lot of hit Sit Coms and hit novels and hit plays and they liked my work, so when they decided that they wanted to do a musical for Queen one thing they really knew was that they wanted to have a lot of humour in it, because Queen have always been about humour. They’ve always had a fantastic sense of humour. Freddie above all. Everything he did was witty. I mean you just had to look at him and he felt witty and creative and interesting, and so they wanted it to be a comedy. And that’s why they came to me.
CHRIS: So over the past couple of weeks there has been a nation-wide search for the next cast for your musical. Do you have any pieces of advice for people auditioning for your musical?
BEN: Same piece of advice I had for the writer. “Above all, to thine own self be true”. We are looking for individuality. We are not looking for, [Freddie] – nobody can sing these songs like Freddie sang. No one. There was only ever one Freddie. But there’s only ever one of any of us. We’re all unique individuals and every one of us has a Freddie inside us. Not everyone has a great voice, but there’s something about Freddie, who was a great individual and somebody who learnt to love himself, in all of us. That’s why he wrote ‘Champions’. ‘Champions’ is a song about learning a degree of self-respect, a degree of self- love and we all need to learn that. And so I say to anybody when they come in, and they’ve got to do a scene of my dialogue and sing a Queen song, I say “Sing it the way you want to sing it. Play the song the way you want to play it.” Cause our musical is all about empowering the individual. When you take a show like Phantom, which I love, and ALW is a friend of mine, and I’ve written two shows with him, but Phantom is all about doing it the way it was originally done. It’s almost like a portrait. You watch it the way it is. Everybody is told to hold the rose the way Michael Crawford held the rose 20 years ago, and that’s great!
CHRIS: Fascinating –
BEN: – But that’s not how it works for our show because sometimes we have women playing men parts, sometimes we play it around by changing songs, it’s all about recreating the show. And we’re looking for the rock star in each individual and that rock star is different for everybody.
I mean the difference between Cyndi Lauper and Britney Spears is considerable but we might have two girls come and audition for Scaramouche, one of them is a bit of a Britney, one of them is a bit of a Cyndi they’d both be great at Scaramouche. There’s no ONE way to play Scaramouche. Or Galileo or any of our parts. They’re always different. So my advice to anyone coming to audition in front of me and Brian and Roger is ‘To thine own self be true’.
CHRIS: That sounds to me like you’re heavily involved in the creative process every time this show is [produced] –
BEN: As much as I can be. Most directors never see the show once it leaves London but Brian and Roger and I… Brian and Roger would have worked with every single musician that plays on the Australian production. They’ll know them all. And I will have auditioned the finals, I can’t do the whole thing, but I will be there for the last two days and I will cast them. And if I have the time, I intend to have the time to spend 2 or 3 days working on the scenework with them. But also the Director is working with them. What we call the Associate – he’s also a close colleague of mine. We’ve worked together in Canada and he did the New Zealand production, so We Will Rock You has a family of people who all understand it. We’ve got 3 associates, who work around the world. And they’re all part of what we do, they all know us.
CHRIS: Is that collaborative nature, is that something you carry with your other writing projects as well?
BEN: Well not everything, not a novel for example, but certainly WWRY is more collaborative because it has to be. You can’t be everywhere at once, you have to find people you trust and then let them do it. If somebody comes up to me and says “I think I can do a better transition in this theatre, we don’t have a thrust, we’ve got a much deeper stage. We’ve got wider wings but we’ve got no thrust, so can I direct it this way?” I go “Absolutely because I trust you and I know that you will preserve the spirit of what I directed. And if the theatre is the wrong shape for what I left you with, well change the shape, you know. Because I trust you. So yes, WWRY has to be collaborative Not everything is nearly as collaborative as that.
If I were directing a movie, it’s collaborative, but you make every final decision. But I can’t do that with WWRY because I’m not in the room all the time.
CHRIS: When you aren’t working – what do you do with your time? Have you managed to achieve the fabled work life balance?
BEN: Yeah I really have. I’ve got 3 kids. I’m at home a lot, because I’m a writer. I do most of the cooking, my wife does the housework. I’m a big part of family life. I don’t work all the time at all, I just work hard when I do work. We’ve just had 4 days on Rotto – Rottnest Island, we’ll go back to Britain for Christmas, do a little bit of skiing. I have a good balance.
CHRIS: Was it hard carving that out?
BEN: No, You see I love my work, so I only do it when it makes me happy, so if it’s making me feel unhappy because I feel I’ve ignored my children or whatever then I stop doing it, you know. I’m away quite a bit, but when I’m at home – then I’m there when they leave and I’m there when they come back because I’m working in a little room in my own house. So you know, if somebody is going to read this and go “Oh I feel sick, it sounds so perfect” you know, I’m very lucky.
I have a good work life balance. I work a lot. But there’s nothing wrong with that.
CHRIS: Were you always so filled with confidence that writing was what you were going to do?
BEN: Yeah, I wrote a full length play when I was 15. And I put it on at college. I went to college when I was 16, it’s sort of like Tafe. And I said to some of the other kids. “Well I’m going to put on a play, will you be in it?” and it was hard, nobody had ever done it before, and nobody has done it ever since. And I did – I put on a full length 3 act, light comedy called “Once more with feeling” set in an am dram society, which is what I knew, what I’d been doing, amateur drama, and I wrote another play that year, I put on 8 plays at university. 8 original plays. I’d always written a lot, and I always put it on.
CHRIS: And then you got swept away into BBC into writing –
BEN: I was very lucky. I went to University and I met some great people in particular Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, and when I left university, an alternative comedy was just starting in London, and Rik was already getting popular, and he had a break at the BBC. The BBC said to him “We’d like to do something with you. Well, we’d like to consider doing something with you, what do you got?” And Rik said “I don’t have anything quite, but I’ve got a good idea, let me talk to my mate Ben” and then Rik and I joined forces and that was The Young Ones.
CHRIS: It sounds like a lot of what you were doing, especially at the start, was to write for the sake of writing without reward or for a specific project. For developing your craft-
BEN: Definitely – and I wrote on spec [speculatively] forever. And it was a good thing. The Young Ones was Rik’s idea, but he wasn’t the dialogue and story man. And so he wanted a writer. And fortunately he’d seen my plays at University – he’d laughed at them, he thought they were great. And so, had I not written those plays and put them on he would never have thought to come to me when he got his break at the BBC. And so I guess I made my own good fortune in that respect.
We Will Rock You opens in Sydney at the Lyric Theatre in April of 2016. Stay tuned to AussieTheatre for a cast announcement.
More details and ticket bookings can be made at wewillrockyou.com.au
Make your own good fortune, and good luck!