UPDATE 1 DECEMBER 2018 – IT’S A KIND OF MAGIC IS BACK IN SA AT THE THEATRE OF MARCELLUS IN JOHANNESBURG
We had the pleasure of speaking to Giles Taylor who portrays Freddie Mercury and the show’s tour manager Ben Hopper who sat with us to discuss how they manage to keep the Queen magic alive.
Welcome to South Africa. The show has toured NZ, Australia, Singapore, Canada. How long has the show been going?
With this particular cast it has been going give or take two years. We’ve only had a couple of weeks off here or there to reorganize songs in the show. If we go to a different country what would have been a hit in SA might not have been a hit in Australia so we juggle it up to keep it fresh for ourselves and also for the audience. There’s always those staple five or six songs that were famous all over the world, Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, everyone knows those. But then other songs were big in Europe but in the States no one knows them.
How do you prepare for this kind of show and for the role of Freddie in particular??
Ben: It’s not so bad when we’re doing residencies, although the production side does take a lot longer when we’re touring, it’s go go all the time. We’re doing four or five shows a week in different places, it’s difficult for the guys and we’ve got to make sure that they’re all ready for the show. In some respects, having a run like here is easier, but it’s a different kind of pressure. This is our last city in SA before we leave on February 8 and then we’re off to Europe. We were in PE and we opened the Opera House.
Giles: In terms of preparing before you go on stage there’s a certain point that every performer has where they flip from being themselves into being whatever character they’re playing. For me it’s as soon as I dye my moustache black. It’s the last thing I do of my makeup really. So all I after to do after that is basically put my costumes on and I’m good to go.
It’s probably hard not to get too sunk into being Freddie Mercury. Do you find that you lose some of yourself or do you have like a guideline to sort of say okay stop now, that you can keep your own personality?
I think if you’re going to emulate someone as big as that then you literally have to be as much like them as you possibly can for those two hours of the show. There’s certainly elements – it’s not a very stringent script we have, the producer has given me a lot of leeway to have some banter. So from that side of things, although I say things that Freddie would have said and do them in the mannerisms he would have used, there’s definitely a bit of me that comes across. The aim is to try and keep it as close to 100% as possible though.
Do you have a favourite Queen song and why?
My favourite one is Fat Bottomed Girls, simply because it’s always a hit wherever we go in the world. We don’t have to change it or take it out. And it’s the first Queen song I remember hearing.
Have you always been a Queen fan?–
Yeah, my father had a copy of Queen’s greatest hits, so I was subjected to that on my drive to school for God knows how many years. Your first exposure to music is generally what your parents have, what you scratch around and find in their cupboards.
Freddie Mercury started from this small beginning in Zanzibar to become this massive person. Would you say he would influence people to think I can start from a place like South Africa and be whoever I want to be?
He was certainly very positive in his attitude and knew what he wanted to be and would tell people what he wanted to be even before he was anywhere near being that. So I think if you know what you want, and you’re prepared to work, you can achieve anything no matter where you’re from. I would not really say it was a rags to riches story though as his father had a good paying job at the post office and they shipped back to the UK and everything was there for them.
I watched a very good documentary Freddie Mercury – The Untold Story and his parents were encouraging and allowed him to be who he wanted.
I think having encouraging parents helps any child to develop. You have to guide them when they’re still learning regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. And every birthday he would send his mother flowers, religiously. I think he rebelled a bit against the rigidity of the relationship but he would never forget her birthday. And I think his relationship with his father was a lot more fluid, there was no stress there. It was an easier relationship. I know my parents were very encouraging of my music but at the same time were like please just have something to fall back on at the very least. Music may or may not bear fruit, so at least have a plan B. My law degree is a fall back.
Was he quite an enigmatic sort of character?
There was effectively two Freddie Mercurys and this comes from Peter Freestone who was his personal assistant for 12 years. He’s on our production team. The introverted shy Freddie Mercury who was quietly sitting at home playing with his cat and didn’t want to talk to anyone, and then there was his flip side, the extrovert Freddie Mercury who was the flamboyant, theatrical Freddie Mercury who brought us the Queen Magic that we know and love.
Just a question about taking on his persona. Do you find that you adopt some of that yourself or do you leave that on the stage?
No, there’s traces. You take it with you sometimes yeah. I probably don’t realize.
The music was in a way ahead of their time.
It’s timeless. It was and we’ve certainly helped them, and the real Queen is still out there touring so the resurgence doesn’t do us any harm. At the same time there’s a very different market, they’re doing two completely different things which is great.
What would have been the reason for him to change his name from Farokh Bulsara to Freddie Mercury?
When the family moved back to the UK, I think it was a lot easier, plus he wasn’t a particularly religious man, his mother was, his father wasn’t so I think he was going for this neutral new British image. It helped with the enigma and he definitely would have had a stage name, as well the same as Elton John and Cliff Richard.
He was an excellent artist and studied graphic and fashion design. He could have gone in any direction. Do you think he had to make a choice?
He used to have a market stall where he basically sold all of his own designs. He basically designed the majority of his own costumes.
It’s that drive.
Some people are just annoyingly good at everything they do. No, I think it comes down to one’s personality, do you have drive or not, or somewhere in-between. He was clearly very driven and knew what he wanted to do.
Ben: And if you’re creative as well, artists want to express their creativity, don’t they, so if you express it on the stage or through designing clothes – people like that just want to get their stuff out there, don’t they.
I was very taken by Freddie’s duet Barcelona with the opera singer Montserrat Caballé . Are you doing that, perhaps?
Not this time as we don’t have an orchestra. We’re coming back in 2017 with an orchestra so we’ll do it then. It’s one of those things you can’t do half arsed, and we don’t want to use tracks or anything. We like to do everything right. It was mind-blowing and so far from what they were known to do and yet they pulled it off. Much to the disgust of some opera singers, who criticize his technique but he’s probably got a bigger range than the lot of them. And the fluidity with which he does it is amazing.
Who will be the operatic singer? Do you have someone in mind?
Depends who’s available at the time, obviously we’ll be trying to use the best person who’s available.
How did you discover you could be Freddie Mercury?
I do all the songs in the style of Yoda. No, sorry. I had too much coffee this morning. I started singing when I was about 11 – 12. I started piano playing when I was five, so I’m predominantly a piano player. My singing style was predominantly pop and then I moved into West End theatre style which was very different to the way that Freddie sings. He’s got this amalgamation of pop, rock and operatic. So when we started doing the show we had a lot of vocal coaches to try and combine what I was doing into something that sounded like him because there is no one style that he does. The hardest thing is when you learn to do something, you have to unlearn other things to throw other bits in. That’s – unlearning is harder than learning, in my opinion. When you do something that’s now second nature, you now have to learn to do it a different way, that’s tricky. To start phrasing things in an operatic style but singing them in a pop voice is hard.
What have been the favourite songs in SA that you’ve performed? What have they really gone wild for?
The thing about SA is that as you know, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg are three completely different cities with three different cultures, so it’s amazing, like three different countries. So again what’s going to be a hit here is not going to be a hit in Cape Town, which is bizarre because it’s the same country. They all go for Fat Bottomed Girls, and Bohemian Rhapsody’s always a win.
Is there anything you would like to get across with the show that you yourself would like to put over?
I think ultimately what the show is is two hours of Queen’s best live performances. So it’s going to be all the hits and also some not hits, some B sides for all the Queen fans. If you are a Queen fan then you’re going to love it because it’s the closest thing you’ll get to seeing Queen live and if you’re not a Queen fan then I guarantee you’re going to recognize most of the songs, you just didn’t realize that they were Queen songs.
Ben: The way most Queen songs are written, the live version takes it to another level doesn’t it. You can feel that from the audience. It takes very little to get them out of their seats. They come to see a theatre show and then realize it’s a rock concert and then they just go wild.
Do you think without meaning to Freddie Mercury’s death brought some visibility to the AIDS cause?
Probably being one of the most famous and first celebrities to die of AIDS it certainly brought a lot of attention and there’s the Freddie Mercury AIDS Foundation. Peter Freestone is closely related to it. He was on the board last year. People can make donations and stuff like that.
Ben: It highlights the issues of it and people’s understanding would increase. It’s education. It’s all very well handing out condoms and stuff but you have to educate people about using them. Until that sinks in.
You’re going to find Joburg Theatre is a very good venue.
Ben: Showtime has done shows here before and that’s why we’ve come back over so many years. We’re well aware of the audience and the venue as a really good venue for our productions, because the amount of stuff we can do production wise on the stage is just mind-blowing. A great place to bring Queen Magic alive. Personally from a crew perspective this is one of the best theatres in the world to perform in because the in-house crew guys are excellent and from the management down it’s really a pleasure to play here, and the city and the audience as well. Their knowledge and the equipment they have here is really good. The things you can do on that stage is just incredible. Everybody comes for a good time and they get one.
How did the auditioning process work?
For all of the characters in the show, because it is literally the four members of the band, rather than having like Whitney Houston and a band, they held worldwide auditions. If you want the best that is available or the closest that there is to that character that they can get at the time, you must put in the work so to cut a long story short, it started off with a Skype audition, CVs and show reels and stuff like that, back and forth. For me the process lasted about eight months, a ridiculous amount of time, but if you’re going to search the whole world – if you’re going to do it right that’s how long it’s going to take.
Ben: We want to do the best show in the world. We want to be the best Queen tribute show in the world. And I think if you come and see our shows, you’ll agree that we are. Showtime’s got a reputation for all the shows and if we don’t have the right person, we’re not going to do the show.
Is there anything else you guys would like to get across?
Ben: We are paying tribute to Queen but we’re not just the run of a mill tribute show. We’re wowing audiences around the world, and have played shows on every continent bringing that Queen Magic. A lot of people come to tribute shows and don’t know how it’s going to go. Other tribute shows can lower expectations, but when they come to one of our shows, we take a lot of pride in our production and in the fulfilling of the roles. That’s why we scoured the world to get Giles. And we’re a world class production.
Catch the show on at The Joburg Theatre until 6 February.
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