Creating the hit musical ‘School of Rock’

The cast of the "School of Rock" tour.

The cast of the "School of Rock" tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of such megahits as The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, wants audiences to have a “really good time” at this 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,” he says. But ALW 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 – the empowering force of music.”

ALW 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, 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 Julian Fellowes. “I mean, you art sort of half moved to tears, simply by the fact that they’re playing this music.” ALW adds, “You wouldn’t really think that they’re 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” and “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.” 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, my next port of call was to talk to a major dramatist because when you’re dealing with a very successful film, which has got a life of its own, I really wanted to talk to somebody who also has had a major career in film. And Julian Fellowes, who I know has also written for 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. Sometimes you have to talk yourself into things to see if you want to do it. But I knew I wanted to do it straight away.”

 

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 parents. “I think it makes the children’s parts a little more interesting to play. 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 directors 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 something in that. And the importance of what Dewey does from them is that… he is the only one they feel listens.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber says he discovered his love of music and theater at about the age of the kids in the show. 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. And the lead singer of Deep Purple was our Jesus on the original soundtrack. Coming back to doing this wasn’t a huge leap for me.”

School of Rock makes its TPAC debut September 11-16. Tickets are on sale now at TPAC.org or by calling the box office at 615-782-4040.