With the recent news that Broadway’s production of “School of Rock: The Musical” will close in January, I wanted to see how the West End production is doing almost two years since it opened. It’s easy for a long run to get sloppy (and by easy I mean expected), but with a show like this I knew it would still be a fun time. On this (sweltering hot) summer weekday matinee, I went in fully expecting crowds of kids on their summer break, loud and raucous and annoying, but they were actually fine and as usual it was their parents who didn’t know how to behave. But I put on my blinders and focused on the stage, and I enjoyed myself immensely. The performers are giving it their all, and although they do indeed need a refresher from the director on a few points, it was overall a solid production.
Luckily, although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the musical of “School of Rock” is better than the film, I think that it’s equally enjoyable, although in different ways. Where the movie is tight and well edited (my favorite attribute of anything, which is ironic and fun for you because this site is First Drafts Only haha), the show is a little loose in the cage at times and needed some more cleaning up (and cutting of boring songs). But seeing this story get the stage magic treatment, and especially seeing these kids performing these instruments live, is so special and it makes the musical a winner in my book. And yes, the kids are really performing live, which Andrew Lloyd Webber himself tells you in the opening (recorded) audience greeting.
Why AL Dubs, you ask? Well one of my favorite things about “School of Rock: The Musical” – and the thing that most people don’t realize – is that ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER wrote the music. I don’t think I will ever get over how funny that is. And while it seems like a mismatched composer-to-property pairing, Dubs can ROCK OUT WITH HIS well I’m not going to finish that because he’s a Sir but damn, the man has got some killer rocker vibes. Of course his distinguished works include tons of rocking anthems; I guess I doubted that he still had it in him which was wrong. With ALDubs on the music, we have Glenn Slater on the lyrics, of “The Little Mermaid” (Broadway version, yelch), “Sister Act: The Musical” (decent but unmemorable), and “Leap of Faith” (blahhhh whaaaat) fame, and as you can tell by my parentheticals, I had low expectations for him given his track record. However, most of his lyrics were pretty darn clever, and crammed in so tight that they deserve a re-listen so I can catch all the humor. Well done (finally). The mostly clever lyrics were matched by a mostly clever, often very funny book by – you will never guess this one – Julian Fellowes, as in the creator and sole writer of Downton Abbey. I KNOW. If you had me watch this show without knowing the creative team, and then gave me a list of every single writer in the world and had me put them in order of ‘Who I Think Wrote This’, the guy who wrote Downton Abbey would be all the way at the bottom and the only entry below him would be ‘me but I forgot.’
Speaking of that ‘unmatchable’ performance by Jack Black, the musical Dewey has to be different enough to avoid comparisons. With more immaturity but also maybe more of an obvious heart, this Dewey is a lovable clown. Played now by Stephen Leask, he easily won over the audience even though he shows his sweaty belly a whole lot. Or maybe because he shows his sweaty belly a whole lot, I don’t know, but the man is constantly onstage, constantly jumping on desks and doing backflips???, and constantly belting his lungs out while playing impressive guitar. It’s quite a role. His song “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” was so energetic and baller that I was totally won over by the performer, and I immediately thought ‘oh THIS is why Dewey has a regular alternate’. It took the Broadway production way too long to give the original Dewey, Alex Brightman, an alternate, and instead they pretty much exhausted him for months beyond what should ever be expected of someone (like with Ethan Slater and “Spongebob” this year. JUST GIVE THESE GUYS REGULAR ALTERNATES (AND TELL THE AUDIENCE WHEN THEY WILL BE ON)). Leask is really giving every ounce of everything he has and it’s amazing to see, especially when too many actors in many shows seem to be phoning it in.
The best parts of the show are of course when the incredible kids perform with Leask’s maniacal ball of energy, posing as their substitute teacher but he’s really a bum pretending to be his teacher-best friend. (I’m going to assume you know the story because if you haven’t seen the movie, ya basic. That’s the worst insult. You’re devastated right now.) Three kids rotate in each of the child roles, including Summer, the high-strung perfectionist; Zack, the amazing guitarist whose father is an asshole; Lawrence, the geeky keyboard player who is so sweet; and Sophie, the bassist who literally does duck-face the entire time. My favorite was Freddy, the drummer, a role that is actually shared by two boys and one girl, so I guess the production happily realized that most roles are universal. Luckily, I saw the girl drummer, Annabel Gracey, and she was a badass standout of the whole show. Her command of the stage stood out compared to the other kids, and she tore those drum solos apart. Amazing. Finding kids who can play instruments at this level was a challenge, I’m sure, and finding ones who can also sing and decently act too? They’re not the best singers, and they’re not the best actors, but these kids are impressive, especially when they just get to play. The show really comes alive with such magical energy when they do their big performance numbers. The kids’ straight dramatic line readings need some pace work (too long pauses) and they need to stop looking directly at the conductor for cues, but their talent is undeniable and it’s exciting to watch them perform.
The big performance songs from the movie were kept for the show (including the one that goes “Well you’re not hardcore” I can’t tell from the program what it’s called, and “School of Rock”, their big Battle number), which was a smart decision considering new songs for those big moments would have probably been disappointing to the audience. And they are total bangers so why not keep them?! They’re matched by exciting new songs like the aforementioned “Mount Rock”, “You’re in the Band”, and “Stick It to the Man”, bangers all. There’s a nice “When I Grow Up”- inspired number where the kids feel sad about how shitty their parents are, which is even better in its slightly changed reprise directed to Dewey.
But the adult scenes are hella boring, and sometimes infuriating. The former includes the introduction to the prep school by the principal Ms. Mullins (Rosanna Hyland), which seems to be reprised 100x. Honestly we just don’t need that much time devoted to the other teachers; it adds nothing. The latter includes the scene where Dewey first sees the kids playing (classical) music. Ms. Mullins is running the class, and as they play, she sings the Queen of the Night aria from “The Magic Flute” (you know the aria). I was sitting there just like…is this shit for real? Hyland is a fantastic vocalist but it is so inappropriate and unnecessary for this show. It’s so infuriating because it seemed clearly shoved in there for Sierra Boggess (Broadway’s original Ms. Mullins), an incredible singer (though often very dull), to have something more to do in this thankless role. I guess the creators were thinking, ‘how will we get Boggess to do this non-lead role with just one decent (though again too long and unnecessary) Act II song, oh I know, we will give her a Mozart aria…? OH AND THEN LET’S HAVE HER SING IT AGAIN AT CURTAIN CALL. GIVE US TONYS PLEASE.’ I mean this is really the dumbest part of the whole show and I can’t believe it’s still happening. Her Mullins is kind of directed poorly I think too, all strict and boring with no nuance, so her transformation at the end comes out of nowhere, whereas Joan Cusack in the movie was mature but you could tell she was kind of adorable and very curious about Dewey. The only role more thankless than this one is that of Patti, played by Sarah Silverman in the movie. This Patti is a total shrew and all she does is yell, so much so that when Ned finally tells her off at the end, the audience cheers. I really hate everything about the character, because I really don’t want a packed room to cheer when a man berates his girlfriend and tells her to shut up, but I also wanted her to shut up.
I was also weirded out by the gay jokes. As you know from the movie, there is a little boy who is gay, and his personality is a flamboyant stereotype. Even though the movie was from another era when it comes to representations of gay characters, and so you’d expect the representation today to be more normalized and less played for laughs, the musical dials it up 500%. I was shocked. It doesn’t help that British people are still apparently not comfortable with homosexuality (in a tiny move that I loved, one kids’ parents are two men. When the teacher greets them as “Mr. & Mr. Stephens” or whatever, just simply greeting them, the audience treated that like it was a laugh line. Horrifying), but using this boy to get big laughs just because he says “Barbra Streisand” or likes glitter felt way outdated and offensive. His character can be fun and super funny without being insulting.
So how is “School of Rock” doing? They do need to clean up a few things – the pacing at many points was off, especially on the kids’ deliveries but also with the adults, who also need to work on their accents. I wish they could still make edits (like cutting most of the grown-ups’ songs and scenes), but alas this show has been frozen for years now. Even so, it’s overall a wonderful time at the theatre and you can’t help but enjoy yourself. Watching the band perform live is exciting and the vibe is so happy and exuberant. And while the movie may better, this is a worthwhile adaptation and a guaranteed good time.
If you are going alone, may I suggest/demand that you get seat G30 in the stalls. For only $35 (that’s pounddollars), I had a ROW TO MYSELF. It was the best. The side stalls sections are roughly triangle shaped, with the widest part/longest rows at the stage and tapering backwards until you get to the one-seat row, and it was the best treat ever! No noisy neighbors! No elbow jabs! Honestly it was the best seat ever. You can see here what it looks like: Seating Chart http://www.theatremonkey.com/GILLIANLYNNEstalls.htm
ALW renamed this theatre after famed choreographer (of “Cats” and “Phantom” to name two of her endless achievements) earlier this summer, and then like right after Lynne passed away. She was 92 but I think the moral ‘don’t let ALW name theatres after you’ still stands.