The Show Must Go On: The Queen and Adam Lambert Journey
He’d been a fan of the band since discovering them in his teens, as he struggled with being gay and had come to see its late singer, Freddie Mercury, as an icon not only of self-identity but performance too.
When what was expected to be that one-off appearance on a talent show seemed to ignite a new spark in both May and Taylor, it was only a matter of time before the trio appeared together again. And again. And again. A decade later, Queen + Adam Lambert are one of the most bankable touring acts in the world, while always ensuring there’s a place onstage for Mercury's music.
In 2009, Lambert auditioned for the eighth season of American Idol by singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” – and, in a remarkable moment of missing the point, receiving criticism from judges for having been overly theatrical. At 27, he already had experience performing in music theater, which set him up perfectly for Freddie Mercury’s world.
Watch Adam Lambert’s ‘American Idol’ Audition
As the season progressed, May began receiving more and more messages from friends saying he should check out Lambert. Queen had been dormant since ending their partnership with Paul Rodgers, so May watched some clips of Lambert on YouTube.
“It was evident that he was something completely out of the ordinary,” May wrote in the 2017 book Queen in 3-D. “Then we got a call, Roger and I, inviting us to come and play in L.A. on American Idol, with the two finalists, one of whom was Adam. … They were both good singers and both had a good presence onstage, and it was easy to interact with them. But it was really blindingly obvious that there was a chemistry already between us and Adam. It just happened completely naturally and made us all smile. The public reaction was massive, and so I think from that moment the idea of us working with Adam was seeded in our brains.”
Watch Adam Lambert and Queen on ‘American Idol’
Nothing came of the idea immediately, since Lambert’s contract with the TV show included a requirement to release a record if Idol wanted him to – which it did, even though he placed second. But as he began his solo career, he continued to show flashes of Mercury’s style. He was slammed for having displayed “sexual aggression” in a performance at the American Music Awards, during which he kissed his male keyboardist and ground his hips into the face of a dancer.
“Female performers have been doing this for years – pushing the envelope about sexuality – and the minute a man does it, everybody freaks out,” he said later. “We're in 2009 – it's time to take risks, be a little more brave, time to open people's eyes … and if it offends them, then maybe I'm not for them. My goal was not to piss people off, it was to promote freedom of expression and artistic freedom.”
In 2011, Lambert joined May and Taylor for an appearance at the MTV Europe Awards show in Belfast. May recalled that the artists had already been booked before they considered performing together.
“We all thought it would be a blast to appear together, just to see what happened," he said. "So we did a couple of days of rehearsal and then, totally live, as we always are, on British TV, we played ‘The Show Must Go On,’ ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions.’ The response was stupendous. It was pretty much unanimously, ‘This works.’ So immediately we started thinking, ‘Let’s try some gigs, just to see what happens.’”
Speaking in a TV interview after the show, Taylor said Lambert’s voice was “one in a hundred million,” while Lambert noted that Mercury and Queen inspired him “on a day-to-day basis.” “Freddie and I have a lot of other things in common," he added. "I think that’s something that speaks of a great progression that’s happening in our society. We’re moving forward and we can be honest and open about who we are.”
Watch Adam Lambert and Queen at the MTV Europe Awards in 2011
In 2012, after months of speculation, the title “Queen + Adam Lambert” made its first official appearance. “The intention is to pay tribute to Freddie and the band by singing some fucking great songs,” the singer told the Daily Star. “It’s to keep the music alive for the fans and give it an energy that Freddie would have been proud of.”
The brief tour had originally been set to consist of four festival shows, the first with Elton John in Ukraine; but when the U.K.’s Sonisphere festival was canceled, three London shows were created to replace it. Looking back at the path from American Idol to his first full-fledged Queen shows, Lambert told Huffington Post, “I wasn’t intimidated, just in awe. … Brian and I had a lovely interaction, he’s a cool dude, then we sang ‘We Are the Champions,’ and we had talked about doing something in the future. … Something needed to happen.”
Critics were, perhaps predictably, unkind. “It’s as bad as we feared,” said Antiquiet, saying the Kiev show had produced “horrifying results.” The Telegraph’s reviewer said the London show had been “one of the strangest gigs I have ever seen” and noted, To be fair, Queen were always a peculiar band,” before admitting that Lambert delivered a performance fans enjoyed.
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform in Kiev in 2012
In 2013, Lambert, May and Taylor regrouped for a short set at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas – their first appearance in the U.S. and one that was generally well-received.
“[Lambert] does bring his own approach and he has this amazing range, a gymnastic, beautiful tone and he really fits our material so well,” Taylor told Rolling Stone backstage. “He has all the elements – he has the passion, he has the humor, a little bit of camp," May added. "And when the shots are down, he has the power. It’s incredible.”
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform in Las Vegas in 2013
In 2014, May and Taylor finally let Lambert fully loose, abandoning the various moments when they took over lead vocals themselves. Ahead of their 19-date North American tour, Lambert said the thought of being at the front for the entire show was “beautifully surreal."
“I'm completely in awe of the Queen phenomenon," he said. "I know this tour will be a huge milestone for me, and with
the support of Brian, Roger and the rest of the band, I feel like magic will be on display.” May said their intention was to “rock those beautiful arenas just one more time.” But the band wasn’t over yet.
As a result of audience response, the tour was extended across the world and ran into the following year. It made an estimated $70 million and was listed as the 35th largest-grossing road trip of 2014, and the 46th largest in 2015. Additional appearances included a guest spot on the British TV talent show The X Factor and a New Year’s Eve concert in London. Tickets for their Rock in Rio show in September 2015 sold out in three hours.
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert at Summer Sonic in 2014
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform on ‘The X Factor’ in 2014
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform on New Year’s Eve in London in 2014
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform at Rock in Rio in 2015
In 2016, the band announced a series of high-profile appearances -- Rock in Rio Lisboa, Sweden Rock, the Isle of Wight Festival and the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix – which grew into a 22-date world tour. By that time, Lambert was happy to look back at his feelings when the journey began.
“Freddie was unbelievable – he is mythical," he said. "That was part of me being so intimidated in the beginning ... I was like, ‘Ugh, I'm going to be compared … How do I approach this?’ Brian and Roger were so welcoming and open with me in working together, and that's a big reason why this has been so successful.”
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform at Rock in Rio Lisboa in 2016
In 2017 and 2018, their world tour began in North America and ran for 69 dates, followed by a 10-date residency in Las Vegas titled the Crown Jewels. The year’s activities made an estimated $60 million and ticket sales ran at approximately 94 percent capacity.
During the opening night of the Vegas run, Lambert told the audience, “Some of you might be like, ‘This is great but he’s no Freddie.’ No shit! There can be only one. … Do you love Freddie? Do you miss Freddie? Me too. I’m exactly the same as you guys. I’m a fan too."
That year he admitted he didn't expect the Queen collaboration to continue as long as it had, telling the Guardian it was “the gift that keeps on giving.”
“I’ve figured out how to make those songs work for me," he said. "I’m not playing a part, I’m interpreting them from my viewpoint and a lot of what Freddie was exploring is stuff I’m exploring. … I didn’t get into this to be a role model, but then slowly I realized it was a responsibility I wanted. There’s so much good that can come from being a leader and being open.”
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform in Las Vegas in 2018
In 2019, Queen + Adam Lambert announced the Rhapsody tour, the title a tie-in to the hit 2018 biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Basking in the glory of a new level of attention, May said, “Our last tour featured our most ambitious production ever, and got us our best notices ever. So we decided to rip it apart and get even more ambitious!”
“We have been designing a brand new visual spectacle that will re frame these iconic songs and we are excited to unveil it," Lambert added.
The trio opened the Academy Awards in February 2019, performing before Bohemian Rhapsody won four Oscars at the event. Even though Lambert’s era with Queen wasn’t referred to in the movie, he revealed he had a cameo in the film, playing a truck driver who’s waiting for Mercury to finish a phone call with his girlfriend so the men can enjoy an intimate experience.
Watch Queen + Adam Lambert Perform at the Oscars in 2019
With the arrival of the documentary The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story in April 2019, the collaboration appears proud, confident and ready to celebrate itself.
“I always think that Freddie, with a wicked smile, would say something like ‘I hate you, Madam Lambert,’” May said in 2017. "Because even Freddie would have been gobsmacked at his range and his ability to reinterpret these songs which the four of us originally created together.”