NEW YORK – Andrew Lloyd Webber became a theater legend writing musicals like “Cats,” “Evita” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” This year, he has a new show in town, “School of Rock,” based on the 2003 movie that starred the infectious actor Jack Black and was written by Mike White and directed by Richard Linklater.
The idea of turning it into a theatrical piece came from Mr. Lloyd Webber’s wife Madeleine, who fell in love with the movie’s message – the effect of music on school kids – and spent six years securing the stage rights. She is now an executive producer of the production. It is playing at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway between 50th and 51st streets.
“School of Rock – the Musical” is a more conventional Broadway effort for Mr. Lloyd Webber, much smaller than the operatic largeness of shows like “Evita or “Phantom.” There has been a nice audience reception for “School of Rock” for its unadulterated, simple, theatrical fun. It seems to be one of those shows that is actor-proof, foolproof, critic-proof and G-rated. Of course, it does have loud rock ’n’ roll music, and anyone over 25 might need earplugs to dim some of the deafening sound.
Mr. Lloyd Webber has written most of the music in the show, but he does include three songs from the movie, including the show’s title song, “School of Rock.” An American lyricist, Glenn Slayer, provides appealing words to Mr. Lloyd Webber’s songs, and Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame pens the show’s déclassé, sophomoric book.
All of the creators stick pretty closely to Mr. White’s movie script. The tale’s misbegotten hero, Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman), a tousled rock ’n’ roll musician down on his luck, surreptitiously lands a substitute teaching gig at a private grammar school named Horace Green, where the tuition is $50,000 a year. It is run by a beautiful principal named Rosalie (Sierra Boggess) who, in the course of the show, becomes Dewey’s love interest.
Once Dewey adjusts to this new high-class academic environment, he begins to teach the kids the only thing he knows about: music. His irreverence taps the unruffled students’ real musical talents, and they create a first-class virtuoso band.
Here there are hints of Mere-dith Willson’s 1958 “The Music Man” musical. Some plot choices reminded me of that show’s main character, Harold Hill, but today is the 21st century, and Mr. Lloyd Webber’s outmoded rock ’n’ roll has nothing to do with Willson’s Iowa of 1912. Some of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s rock ’n’ roll music, it seems to me, emulates ’70s Led Zepplin.
“School of Rock” does not have any signature “big” Andrew Lloyd Webber songs like “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” (Evita) or “Memories” (Cats). It does have a showstopper, “Stick it to the Man,” which is so reprised and encored that it tends to stick in the audiences’ heads. It does let the kids get loose in a musical number. Here they don’t really dance, even though the show does have a choreographer, Joann M. Hunter. It is more like rock ’n’ roll unison leg and arm movements to the music. My favorite is a jumping up-down pogo-like dance without the pogo sticks.
What is special about the “School of Rock” score is that Mr. Lloyd Webber has created a score that can be easily sung by children. This always has been one of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s unique talents – think of “Cats,” “Starlight Express.” It goes back to 1968 when he and lyricist Tim Rice wrote their first 15-minute piece, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” for an end-of-term concert for the Colet Court School Boys Choir in London. This launched them both on careers of creating theater pieces.
Mr. Brightman gives a frenetic performance as Dewey. I wish it was a more original take on the role, and less like Mr. Black’s. He gets the job done but doesn’t have Mr. Black’s comic wicked persona. Mr. Fellowes does not give Ms. Boggess much to do as the principal except to be charming. In Act Two, at a roadhouse bar, she gets to take off her glasses and let down her hair, and lets us hear her lovely voice singing a torch song “Where Did the Rock Go?” about her feelings for Dewey.
The other two featured leads, Ned (Spencer Moses), the guy that Dewey hoodwinks out of the job at Horace Green, and his girl-friend Patty (Mamie Parris), turn out to be bland, uninteresting stock characters.
Director Laurence Connor keeps the show’s pace hopping. Anna Louizos’ scenery is so coventional that the Horace Green school and the rock concert setting smack of the same pallid air of drab. Her costumes, mostly school kid garb, also just melt into the settings. Natasha Katz’s brilliant lighting breathes a sense of theatricality into the on-stage proceedings.
What makes “School of Rock” shine is those over a dozen kids from ages 9 to 14. Talking, sing-ing, dancing (I mean, moving!) at school or competing at the Battle of the Bands, these geniuses give it the lift that makes it a hit.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.