Robert De Niro is turning theater producer in London — but don’t expect the two-time Oscar-winner to have much to say on that front.
“It’s going to be terrific,” a taciturn De Niro said in presenting plans for “We Will Rock You,” the next rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza to rock the West End.
Wedding 31 standards from the rock group Queen with an original narrative from English writer-comedian Ben Elton, the musical opens May 14 at the Dominion Theater, with previews from April 24.
De Niro joined Elton and Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor on the Dominion stage March 26 to discuss the six-year gestation of the show.
“We’ve been involved for a long time,” explained De Niro, fresh off the plane from New York (he was in Blighty for just 24 hours), “and this went through a lot of stages. We thought it was a good idea for a musical — once we got it right.”
The show has been capitalized at £7.25 million ($10.3 million) — a hefty sum for a city where “The Lion King” is among the few tuners thought to have cost more.
De Niro and his Tribeca Prods. partner Jane Rosenthal have a 25% stake in the show, with Phil McIntyre Promotions also having 25% and the remaining half belonging to Queen.
Rosenthal, speaking in a subsequent interview from her room at London’s tony Metropolitan Hotel, said the the original idea had been to tell the story of Queen, the death in 1991 of vocalist Freddie Mercury included, through the group’s music.
Christopher Renshaw, hot from his Tony-winning Broadway revival of “The King and I,” was drafted to direct a narrative scripted by Craig Lucas (“Reckless,” “Prelude to a Kiss”).
But in the end that version went south.
Says Rosenthal: “It was very difficult for everybody to agree on a point of view. It all felt a bit self-serving and couldn’t find its balance.”
Enter, several years later, Elton and McIntyre. By this time “Mamma Mia!” had opened in London to smash biz, and suddenly a way forward seemed clear.
“I said, ‘What you need is what people sing when they’re drunk,'” recalls Paul Roberts, managing director of McIntyre Promotions, which has produced virtually all of scribe Elton’s West End entries with the exception of his first foray into musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Beautiful Game.”
(“I wouldn’t have touched that with a bargepole,” Roberts says of the football-themed Northern Irish-set tuner, which got generally good reviews but tanked at the box office.)
With the success of “Mamma Mia!” very much in his mind, Elton set about penning a futuristic script that could draw on the Queen back catalog, which includes 11 top-10 U.K. hits.
Now, nearly six years after De Niro first met Queen players May and Taylor at the Venice Film Fest in 1996, “We Will Rock You” was readying a run-through for the actor, who was due to return to Manhattan the next day to get ready for the April 3 start of filming on director Harold Ramis’ “Analyze That.”
“We’ve been interested in theater for a long time,” Rosenthal says of Tribeca Prods., which has set up a theater umbrella, Tribeca Theatrical Prods., for the purposes of the show.
As proof, she cites the movies the company has backed that were drawn from plays (including “A Bronx Tale” and “Marvin’s Room”) alongside the slow-aborning screen version of “Rent” that, she adds, is “currently on hold.”
Separately, De Niro was talked about as a possible cast member of the long-running London play “Art,” but, says Rosenthal, “That just never worked out.”
In the meantime, with Tribeca Prods. busy in New York, McIntyre’s office is handling day-to-day London chores on what promises to be a technical feat.
Speaking to Variety in a separate interview, McIntyre m.d. Roberts said the show will feature the biggest lighting rig ever assembled for the West End.
The $10.3 million budget includes a $1.56 million outlay for the rental of eight huge plasma screens (think gigs by U2 or the Rolling Stones, Roberts says) as well as a set budget that nears the $1.8 million mark.
And with the March 26 press launch kicking off the real pre-opening ad campaign, Roberts said a $700,000-plus marketing push was intended to lead to near-saturation — including 1,000 posters across the subway system (most shows employ 300) and 20,000 fly posters dotted around the capital. TV plugs — comparatively rare in London — will figure in the mix, too.
At present, the cash advance in the 2,016-seater — one of the West End’s largest — is just in excess of $1.7 million, with Roberts hoping for an additional $4 million by the May 14 opening.
At a $60 top (“Loose change to you Americans,” cracks Roberts, mindful of Broadway’s three-digit ducats), the show can break even playing to just over 50%.
But what will the crix say?
“Ben Elton’s never been popular with the critics,” Roberts acknowledges. “You’re never critic-proof.” What’s important, he says, is audiences, “who will absolutely buy it. I hope they’ll vote with their feet.”