Popular films being turned into Broadway musicals seems like a modern trend, what with Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, and An American in Paris being recent examples, but the truth is that musicals have been – and will continue to be – adapted from popular films in the hope of creating a success with a known property in a different medium. I’d wager that the risk doesn’t pay off more often that not, but that won’t stop people from trying. The latest example of a screen to stage transition comes from the 2003 hit Jack Black comedy, The School of Rock, aided and abetted with music by the Andrew Lloyd Webber of The Phantom of the Opera and Cats. It’s hard to ignore a new Mr. Lloyd Webber musical no matter your personal feelings about the man and his impact on musical theatre, and School of Rock The Musical is no exception. Instead of starting in London like other Mr. Lloyd Webber musicals, this show is premiering on Broadway, it’s American flavor probably being the factor most responsible for this difference. I had not seen the film, and I waited to see it until after seeing the Broadway musical; what’s interesting is to see how this stage version has improved upon its source while also introducing some problems of its own.
School of Rock The Musical is about Dewey, who has big dreams of having a career in rock music, the same dreams he has had since high school. He lives with (and mooches off of) his friend Ned until Ned’s girlfriend, Patty, threatens eviction. Dewey needs cash fast, and so he pretends to be Ned to secure a long-term substitute teaching position at prestigious private school Horace Green, figuring that he can fake his way along for a few weeks until the annual “Battle of the Bands” competition. Once Ned realizes how much musical talent his pupils have he organizes them into a band named “School of Rock,” educating them on all ’70s and ’80s rock music and bands, thinking that together they can all compete at the “Battle of the Bands”; that is, if Principal Rosalie doesn’t find out Dewey’s real identity first and show him the door.
Alex Brightman stars as Dewey, managing to out-Black Mr. Jack Black from the film with his exuberance and musical talent. Whereas Mr. Black played the part for comedy alone, Mr. Brightman brings real rock performing chops to the floor while also hitting (and improving upon) every comedic moment retained from the film. Whereas Dewey is an unrealistic dreamer in the film constantly being kicked out of bands, Mr. Brightman plays him more as an undiscovered talent, and it isn’t too hard to believe that he could have some legitimate career if the right opportunity presented itself. Mr. Brightman is a Dewey that you want to succeed and is more likable than his silver screen counterpart; he brings so much heart to the play that is sorely needed to sustain it.
It is the singing, dancing, musical instrument-playing kids that nearly steal the show from Mr. Brightman, each one of them bringing so much personality to their performances. Some of the standouts among Dewey’s students are Isabella Russo as Summer, the bossy overachiever; Brandon Niederauer as Zack, the guitar prodigy; Ethan Khusidman as Mason, the shy keyboardist; Bobbi MacKenzie as Tomika, the withdrawn girl who reveals her great big, beautiful voice; and Luca Padovan as Billy, the pint-sized fashion designer with sass. It’s interesting to note that curtain is at 7.30pm and not the usual 8pm, perhaps owing to its young cast and the fact that there aren’t rotating casts of children like at some other kid-heavy shows. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is playful and not robotic like what can be found in Matilda, and director Laurence Conner should be congratulated for the riotous but controlled chaos within the show, even if the large production with all of its impressive moving parts aren’t enough to gloss over some of the book’s deficiencies (more on that later).
Sierra Boggess plays Principal Rosalie in the role originated by Joan Cusack in the movie; you’d be hard pressed to find two more different actresses for the same part. Ms. Boggess has an expanded role in the play as a music teacher, an unnecessary contrivance that allows her to show off her operatic singing ability; she leaves little doubt that she is a leading player in a part more suited to a quirky supporting actress. Still, Ms. Boggess appears to be having a grand time, only really coming alive once her character’s love for Stevie Nicks is exposed, belting out “Where Did the Rock Go?” and endearing herself to the audience. Ms. Boggess comes off as perhaps too quick to fall for a lot of Dewey’s shenanigans, but there is no denying her chemistry with Mr. Brightman; their budding friendship in the show rings true. At least a superfluous love subplot between Dewey and Principal Rosalie wasn’t added as I had feared it would be for the stage musical, but being grateful for changes not made is a dubious honor when other additions that were made are so lackluster.
Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame has adapted the film written by Mike White by adhering closely to the source material; still, added scenes with the rest of the faculty at Horace Green and Patty’s drive to expose Dewey as an imposter are strikingly dull contrasts to the scenes with Dewey and the kids. I noticed more people checking the time on their phones during these scenes than during any other show I saw on this New York trip, the first time being just twenty-nine minutes into the play! That can’t be a good sign; surely there was a better way to expand the book of this property for the stage. And what was with the scene in the second act when Principal Rosalie enters the classroom stating that she thought she heard music? Sure, it leads into a very funny, improvised song about the joys of math, but didn’t all of the music the kids played during the first act disrupt the other classes? This logic gap is also in the film, though it’s odd that it was retained in the book to the show as well.
Mr. Fellowes makes a few other changes that I find curious, such as a scene where names are suggested for the band. In the film there are two sweet little girls suggesting cutesy names like “The Koala Bears,” then suddenly adding in “Pig Rectum” as an option. That moment is quite funny because of the contrast with their other suggestions; in Mr. Fellowes’ stage adaptation, the line is given to the Streisand-loving, clothing-designing Billy. There was some uneasy laughter at that moment in the theatre as it felt suddenly tasteless to have Billy reference a rectum, as if making the gay kid say the line would make it funnier; it just brought with it a sexual connotation that it didn’t have in the film because of the change in context.
School of Rock The Musical doesn’t “sound” like an Andrew Lloyd Webber show (he wrote the music while Glenn Slater handles the lyrics), but perhaps that is the point; I’ve heard criticism that many of his songs could be interpolated into different shows and still sound right (imagine “Memory” moved from Cats to Sunset Boulevard, or “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” transplanted from Jesus Christ Superstar to Evita), but that isn’t the case here. While I may not have left the theatre humming any tunes, the score has its best moments in “You’re in the Band,” “If Only You Would Listen,” “Stick It to the Man,” and the humorous “Math Is a Wonderful Thing.” The score is one that grows on you quickly if you give it a chance, but without songs that overwhelm the storytelling like perhaps we are used to from Mr. Lloyd Webber in the past. I wonder if more actual rock songs should have been included instead of just Jim Steinman’s “Where Did the Rock Go?”
School of Rock The Musical succeeds because of Alex Brightman and all of those talented kids in the cast. No matter how plodding and contrived the rest of the book may be, the scenes between the teacher and his pupils are fantastically entertaining. There is a sense of palpable joy whenever the kids and their teacher are together that make School of Rock The Musical worth seeing; this is one film to stage adaptation that surpasses the quality of its source material.
*** out of ****
School of Rock The Musical is performed at the Winter Garden Theatre at 1634 Broadway (at W. 50th St.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://schoolofrockthemusical.com