Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of such megahits as Phantom of the Opera and Cats, wants audiences to have a “really good time” at his newest show, an unabashed musical comedy. “School of Rock is fun. Hopefully, I’ve fleshed it out with a few catchy songs and kept the spirit of the original movie.” But Lloyd Webber adds, there’s more to School of Rock than that. “Hopefully you will also take out of it the central message of the story – which is a very warm and very simple one – which is about the empowering force of music.”
Lloyd Webber, along with book writer, Julian Fellowes, lyricist Glenn Slater and director Laurence Connor, have taken Richard Linklater’s 2003 film – which made Jack Black a star – and given it new life onstage. It’s the story of an outrageous rock star wannabe, named Dewey Finn, who worms his way into a substitute teaching job at a private school. Dewey puts together a rock band with his students to compete against adults in a Battle of the Bands contest – and changes their lives, as a result.
Onstage, the adaptation features a not-so-secret sauce; the kids actually play their musical instruments. Very well. “There is something very moving about that,” says Fellowes. “I mean you are sort of half moved to tears, simply by the fact that they’re playing this music.” Lloyd Webber adds, “You wouldn’t really think that it’s 10 and 11 year-olds! I mean, it’s extraordinary for their age, just how great they are, and how together they play.” The young actors’ musical skills are showcased several times in the show, in exuberant rock numbers like “You’re in the Band,” “Stick It to the Man” and one song retained from the movie, “Teacher’s Pet.”
The idea for the musical came from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wife, Madeleine, who purchased the rights to the film. “I thought maybe it was something that we would flesh out with existing rock songs, because there were a few in the original movie,” says Lloyd Webber. But on closer inspection, he realized there wasn’t that much music in the film. So, he started looking for places where he could add songs. “I saw a couple of moments in the movie where I thought I could,” he says. “And so, my next port of call was to talk to a major dramatist, because when you’re dealing with a very successful film like this, which has got a whole life of its own, I really wanted to talk to somebody who also has had a major career in film, television. And Julian Fellowes, who I know has also written for the theater, was a very obvious choice, because he’s a real craftsman.”
Luckily, the creator of Downton Abbey, and fellow member of the House of Lords, knew and loved the film. “I thought all of it; script, everything, was terrific,” says Fellowes. “Sometimes you have to talk yourself into things, or at least research them, to see if you want to do it. But I knew I wanted to do it straight away.” It wasn’t the first time Julian Fellowes was called on to adapt a much-loved film; he wrote the book for the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage hit based on Mary Poppins.
Over a two-year process, Fellowes and his collaborators worked on bringing more depth to the story, without losing the comedy; in particular, fleshing out the roles of the children and their relationship with their parents. “I think it makes the children’s parts a little more interesting to play,” he says. “They are all more defined as characters.” In fact, the first song Lloyd Webber wrote for the show was “If Only You Would Listen,” sung by the kids to their un-listening parents. Says director Laurence Connor, “I think we actually came up with that song title the first time we sat around the table, because we just knew that there was there was something in that. And the importance of that message and what Dewey does for them is that…he is the only one that they feel listens.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber says he discovered his love of music and theater, at about the same age as the kids in the show. And, he adds, School of Rock represents a coming home, of sorts. His first big hit was the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, which he wrote when he was just 22. “When we recorded Superstar, Led Zeppelin were in the next door studio making an album,” says the composer. “And the lead singer of Deep Purple was our Jesus on the original Jesus Christ Superstar album. So, coming back to doing this wasn’t a huge leap for me.”
School of Rock plays the Aronoff Center February 21 – March 4, 2018 as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Cincinnati series presented by TriHealth. More information is available at BroadwayInCincinnati.com.