School of Rock should have been a slam dunk as a jukebox musical. Richard Linklater’s 2003 comedy, a big hit for Jack Black, has hits from The Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, and The Doors, so in theory all that needed to be done was to obtain the rights, assemble a reasonable facsimile of the cast, and get ready to rock.
From what I gather that was the original plan, but something happened on the way to the Winter Garden: It became a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who sold out the same venue for years with Cats. With a book by Julian Fellowes, an Oscar winner for Gosford Park (2001) and an Emmy winner for Downton Abbey. Two guys–two lords–you don’t really expect to rock, particularly with material as clangingly American as this.
But rock Rock does. It’s not so much the music as it is the general attitude of the show, summed up by its signature song, “Stick It to the Man.” Glenn Slater, of Tangled, other Disney stage musicals, and ABC’s Galavant, wrote the catchy lyrics, which smell like tween spirit without being too hard-edged for a barn like the Winter Garden. (Parents can safely take their sonic youth to the show.) The spirit really moves through the cast, including some amazingly talented kids, ages 9-15 but convincingly playing 11. Helping to put them through their paces is the show’s associate choreographer and dance captain, Patrick O’Neill, a friend and former neighbor of mine (he lived in Jay-Z’s old crib at Brooklyn’s famed 560 State Street, rock), and he and the other grownups in charge have done a splendid job molding raw talent into Broadway scene-stealers.
When not playing their own instruments live, or singing, the kids shimmy and stomp through Joann M. Hunter’s lively choreography. But School of Rock rests upon the beefy bod of star Alex Brightman, who survived a one-night flop I saw a few years back (Glory Days) to fill Black’s shoes as Dewey, the rock-and-roll rebel without a clue who finds new purpose when he fakes substitute teacher credentials and winds up in charge of some high-strung, overscheduled, under-stimulated private school kids. What was said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, that she did everything he did, except backwards and in high heels. Well, Brightman does everything Black did, except live onstage eight times a week, and with some additional characterization besides. His is the most fantastically energetic performance I’ve seen on Broadway since James Corden’s Tony-winning turn in One Man, Two Guvnors, and he and the kids have an easy, winning rapport.
Rock shows its “Broadway” side by adding a romance between Dewey and the school’s starchy principal, a closeted Stevie Nicks fan. (The actual Nicks is a huge fan of the musical, and has been spotted several times at performances.) In the “Marian the librarian” part, one that takes School of Rock in a Music Man direction, Little Mermaid star Sierra Boggess is restrained until the second act, where she flies her freak flag with the song “Where Did the Rock Go?” It’s a satisfying switch from the source, and the kids get more backstory, too, in Fellowes’ book. (It’s hard to single any of them out, but Isabella Russo’s bossy Summer is very much the leader of the band.)
Directed by Laurence Connor, and with a design that effortlessly switches from punk to private school, School of Rock successfully navigates the usual pitfalls for movies-into-musicals and rock-based tuners. (And Andrew Lloyd Webber shows, which have struggled since the British Invasion of Broadway ended. There’s even a joke about them in the book.) Rock adds to its inspiration without subtracting anything vital, and, thanks to the undying appeal of youngsters playing instruments as big as they are, it’s got the spirit exactly right.