Lee Mead prepares to rock the Coliseum in 'We Will Rock You'
The actor plays Khashoggi in the revival of the Queen jukebox musical at the London venue, marking the show's first West End production in more than 20 years.
Lee Mead has "always played the nice-guy roles" in his 15-plus-year stage career. His big break came from winning Any Dream Will Do, a reality TV competition that landed him the title role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and he's gone on to play other likeable leads including Fiyero in Wicked and Prince Charming in a Cinderella pantomime.
With We Will Rock You, he's breaking that streak. In the musical's first London revival since its 2002 premiere at the Dominion Theatre, he plays Khashoggi, the police chief of a world where rock music is banned and a group of Bohemians set out to change that.
"I didn't even know about the audition, funnily," Mead remembered. "I didn't get a call from an agent about Khashoggi because he's a very evil, sinister, baddie guy — my first ever bad-guy role."
As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, Mead had to audition for members of Queen, whose song catalogue powers We Will Rock You. And he's performing the role at the London Coliseum, a stage Freddie Mercury himself graced in 1979.
Mead is excited to take that stage again, though — he's also performed there once before — and knows audiences will be excited, too. "Just being at the Coliseum itself is going to be a spectacle," he said.
Mead spoke with London Theatre about how he landed the role, working with Queen and the show's director/writer/performer Ben Elton, and the Queen song that means the most to him.
We Will Rock You is at the London Coliseum from 2 June to 26 August.
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How are rehearsals going?
Ben Elton's really happy about the direction, so we're making really good headway.
It's always good when you're doing a show, [even though] it doesn't always work that way, to block the whole thing, get it on its feet within a couple of weeks. Then you can spend the last two or three weeks really finessing all these things and running the scenes over and over and over again and finding the real magic. But I'm really loving our system. It's just been great to be in the rehearsal room.
I said to friends and family, I still can't believe I'm working for Ben Elton and for Queen as well. It's still hasn't sunk in, really. I think it will [on the] first night at the Coliseum when we open on 2 June. I'm sure it'll be a full house, and it's just going to be absolutely incredible.
How did you land the part of Khashoggi?
Brenda Edwards, who's playing the Killer Queen in the show, is a really good friend of mine now. This is our third job together within a year, which is crazy. We did a panto for Christmas together in Wimbledon. About two weeks into the run, backstage between shows, she went, "I'm doing We Will Rock You in the West End." And I went, "Oh, wow, amazing! I'll come to see you in that." And she went, "You know what? You'd be a brilliant Khashoggi." I said, "Oh, who's Khashoggi?" I saw the show 20-odd years ago.
She was like, "He's the bad [guy], he's the Killer Queen's number two." I said, "Wow, I'd love to work with you again," and she said, "Right, let's do it. Come on. Get in touch with your agent."
What was it like auditioning for Queen?
I called my agent and got all the material, got right on top of the songs, really worked hard. Got the audition and got past the first round for the producers and everyone else, and then the final was for Ben Elton, and Brian May and Roger Taylor from Queen.
There was a moment just before going in, and I was like, "Wow, I'm gonna be singing a Queen song for Queen." "Seven Seas of Rhye" was the song I had to sing for them. I thought, there's only two ways: I could either [mess] this up or just smash it and get the job, and I'm going to just enjoy myself. And I smashed it.
I remember hitting the last note... And Brian May, after the song, said, "Wow, that was great." And then I said, "Well, brilliant." And about three or four days later, I got a call from my agent saying, "You got the job."
Prior to your audition, had you ever met any of Queen before? Or was that the first time you'd seen them in the flesh?
No, first time in the flesh, which can be quite daunting. I've been doing this for 20 years, but even 10 years ago, to have the composure to sing a Queen song in front of Queen... I don't know if I could have done that.
Brian is so down to earth, as is Roger as well. Like most people that are really successful, they're really lovely because they've got nothing to prove.
On that note, working with Ben as director in rehearsals has been incredible. He lets you play around and be bold with your choices and try things out. A lot of directors don't do that. They're quite strict on how they want you to play a role. So it's been it's been really fun to do.
What's it like working with a director like Ben, particularly since he'll also be in the show?
It's a big challenge for Ben: he wrote the show, he's been a part of its life for the last 20-odd years. To have his director hat on as well as being in it... I was watching a scene yesterday, the Heartbreak Hotel scene where the Bohemians go underground, and Ben's got a big speech in that scene. He's quite heavily featured.
And then he will pause halfway through, he's like, "No, that doesn't work." So he goes into director mode and then he goes back into Pop, the character.
Kenneth Branagh is going to be playing King Lear in the West End soon — directing while playing Lear, which is a huge challenge as well. You've got to really, as a director, be all over the script and know exactly how it evolves, how you're going to direct everything.
Are you relishing getting to play an evil character and show something different?
I really am, yeah. Ben has been so complimentary so far... [He said,] "I'm so happy with how you're playing Khashoggi, and you're going to be brilliant, and I love what you're bringing to the character." I was saying how previous Khashoggis have been the baddie role opposite Killer Queen, but it comes with more of a comedy approach to it. But I'm not playing it comedic at all because the comedy's in the writing.
I said to them very early on, "I want to play him very sinister." He's a sociopath, very evil – because you've got comedy throughout the show, so it's important my character is very dark. I'm playing him like he's almost a bit crazy as well. And I'm really, really enjoying that because I've never had the chance before to do that with a character.
What are you most looking forward to about performing at the Coliseum?
All of it, really. Being in the Coliseum — the Coliseum itself is the biggest theatre in the West End officially, I think. I brought my Christmas show there for one night in 2011. It was really special; to go back there will be amazing.
And then just to be singing the Queen songs and playing my first evil character, I really relish that. And just being part of a big company again, because my last show was Chicago, playing Billy Flynn at the end of last year for 10 weeks on tour, which was great, but I've done a lot of my solo stuff [lately].
It's been a few months since I've been part of a company, so it'll be great to be part of a big company again and just advance from being in work together and socialising with everyone.
Having gotten your start on a casting show on TV, what do you think of the relationship between TV and musical theatre and how new audiences might learn of shows for the first time through TV?
It's a brilliant concept, and obviously it gave me a whole career. If anything, I've always said this: theatre as a whole shouldn't be elitist. It shouldn't be for certain audiences. I'm from a very working-class family with no money growing up and couldn't afford to go see theatre. When I won the Joseph competition a few years back, because it's such a big show — at the time, 13-14 million [people] watched the show. Every Saturday night over 12 weeks, it brought a whole new audience in the theatre.
My dad's friends at work had never seen a musical show, and because of that programme, they'd come and [see it], and that's a great, great thing. But on the flip side, as the casting people and producers, what you do have to do is make sure you get it right and cast the right people because you can't have someone doing eight shows a week that can't deliver.
Why should people come and see We Will Rock You this summer, even if they saw it at the Dominion or elsewhere?
People should come and see it if they hadn't seen it before or even if they'd seen it 25 times. And the cast — I'm not saying previous casts hadn't been great, but this is a proper stellar cast, from Brenda to Ben Elton being in the show. The cast are phenomenal, so talented.
And there's a real buzz and excitement behind this production because it's the first time back in 21 years. I noticed tweaks to the arrangements musically and the script to bring them up to date as well. It's an all-fresh production.
What Queen song is your go-to?
Honestly, personal to me is "Don't Stop Me Now" because I've got a stepson, Alfie, and it's his favorite song. My fiancée Izzy['s] granddad, Nick, sadly passed away recently. He was an amazing man — it was only last month. But his favorite song in the whole world was "Don't Stop Me Now". So it's really lovely that I'm getting to work with Queen and do the show and hear that eight times a week. I'm not singing that one. [But] that's quite special to me.
Maybe it's good you're not singing it because you might get too emotional.
Possibly. I heard on the radio the other day that that's been voted the most popular song to sing along to in a car!
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Photo credit: Lee Mead. (Photo courtesy of production)
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