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‘We Will Rock You’ harnesses power of Queen’s stirring songbook

If not for a hernia operation, he might not be on the other end of the line right now.

Russell Broom’s life in music began circuitously, when he was a kid in his native Canada recovering from surgery, beside himself at the thought of being sidelined from sports.

Then came an unexpected assist from Freddie Mercury.

That voice. It changed things.

“I was playing hockey, and I couldn’t play for a year. So I was pretty bummed out,” Broom recalls. “But my sister had a 45 of ‘We Are the Champions.’ I played it, and it was the first time that I really felt an emotional connection to music.

“I was feeling really low,” he continues. “I felt like I couldn’t do this thing that I really wanted to do. I heard the emotion in the song, the triumphant way that Freddie Mercury would sing it. Queen was my introduction to being really emotionally affected by music. I’ve carried that with me ever since.”

Three decades into a decorated career as a musician, producer and songwriter with multiple Juno Awards (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) and credits with household names such as Robbie Williams and Josh Groban, Broom has come full circle.

The kid who was once so moved by Queen is now the musical director of “We Will Rock You,” a jukebox musical based on 24 selections from the group’s iconic songbook.

“You couldn’t make that (stuff) up,” Broom chuckles of his backstory with the band.

How ‘We’ came to be

The plot revolves around a dystopian future — It’s always a dystopian future, isn’t it? Don’t things ever just kind of work out? — where there are no longer musical instruments.

The bright side?

No more kazoos.

The downside?

No more rock ’n’ roll, either.

And so a crew of “rock rebels,” the Bohemians, aims to change that by battling the totalitarian Globalsoft company headed by the Killer Queen, naturally, and restore things to their natural, rockin’ order.

It’s a tale with Orwellian undertones and sci-fi leanings, “1984” meets “The Matrix” meets fist-in-the-air rock opera.

The original production opened in London’s West End in 2002, where the show ran for 12 years, and had a stint from 2004 to ’05 at Paris Las Vegas. “We Will Rock You” has played to more than 15 million fans in 17 countries.

Prior to its current North American tour, the musical was revamped with a new score overseen by musical director Stuart Morley.

“He sat in Brian May’s studio listening to the original multi-tracks and basically was charting everything from the original recordings,” Broom says. “It’s the first time the charts have been completely and totally accurate. It’s the first time the original arrangements and all the little idiosyncrasies of the songs have been replicated.”

This means elevating authenticity over perfection.

“There’s a couple of things where there’s long notes,” Broom says. “They don’t sound really sour or really off, but there were notes that don’t really work. When the band was learning them, it would come up, ‘Is this correct?’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ (Laughs).

“If you listen to it and you play it right, it doesn’t sound the same, it doesn’t feel the same,” he continues. “We really are trying to honor everything that is unique about what they did and just trying to bring that live energy to it. There’s mistakes and everything. And the mistakes sound great.”

Finding his Freddie

When it came to bringing the music to life, Broom wasn’t looking for a bunch of veteran musical theater types.

This was a story about rock stars, so he needed real-life rock stars.

“My idea of how to present the music was to basically put a band up there that didn’t sound like they were reading charts or were a pit orchestra or a bunch of guys who were interchangeable,” he explains. “These aren’t people who are musical chameleons. They’re very specific with what they do — and they do it really, really well. I feel that’s sort of in the spirit of Queen, because you look at that band, and it’s some idiosyncratic people who have a really unique skill set, and when you put all that together, that’s how you get a sound. I think we’re very true to that spirit.”

With the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” doing blockbuster business last year, “We Will Rock You’s” return to the road is a timely one, on multiple levels.

In addition to Queen’s repertoire getting reintroduced to the mainstream for yet another generation, the overarching theme of the musical — striving for a return to the age of rock — takes on added resonance in an era when the music has never been less popular in terms of sheer album sales.

Revolution rock

None of this is lost on Broom.

“I think we’re overdue for another rock ’n’ roll cultural upheaval,” he says. “The context of the show really does address that. You look at punk or the grunge movement, where music was dangerous and then it sort of plateaued and became more mainstream, more accepted, and then something came along and dumped the table on the floor, threw all the glasses over and gave the middle finger to whatever music was the status quo.

“We’ve seen that cycle happen before,” he continues, “and part of the storyline, to my interpretation, is addressing that, addressing how intent with music, over execution, is the one thing that can really bring together and give people some kind of umbrella to collectively show up at a hockey rink or a club or anywhere and experience the intensity of the music that’s cutting through the thing that we were sort of becoming numb listening to.”

The antidote to said numbness?

For Broom, it’s something loud, visceral and distinctly human, something that backing tracks and computer-abetted music performances don’t have: a pulse.

“Live music these days, there’s so many tracks going on and it’s so staged and so heavily produced,” he says. “The live shows for a lot of major touring artists, it’s very consistent, it’s very canned, it sort of feels like you’re hearing the record live, and you aren’t really getting any unique experience.

“But rock ’n’ roll, it’s always been about being in the moment,” he adds, “about getting up there and giving it everything you’ve got to try to connect with people in the audience and tell everyone that they don’t have to listen to what everyone else is listening to, that they can find something that speaks to them.

“Music doesn’t feed people. It doesn’t deliver a liver to a hospital for a transplant, but it can help inspire them to be bold or to be engaged on a different level. I think we’re completely and totally overdue for music to revolutionize our culture yet again.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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