Rebel Rhetoric and Restless Tweens
By Jonathan Kalb
School of Rock: The Musical
By Julian Fellowes, Glenn Slater and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Winter Garden Theater
School of Rock: the Musical is Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes’s effort to squeeze a few more millions out of a deliciously dumb and infectiously silly movie. Originally conceived as a signature vehicle for the high-octane, lunatic-grunge comedian Jack Black, the 2003 film told the story of slacker and wannabe rock-god Dewey Finn, who impersonates a grade school teacher at a snooty private school, wins the loyalty of his misfit pupils, and teaches them the inestimable life-lesson that fulfilling oneself in America means being a rebel who “sticks it to the man,” preferably with eardrum-shattering sound.
The movie was a warm-hearted fantasy of sheltered anarchy and domesticated rebellion, and the same is true of the musical. The appeal of Dewey’s idiosyncratic mania aside, the story’s political absurdity is a big part of its charm. Much of the action consists of Dewey’s wacky sham-teacher act, with its profusion of gags that puncture stuffiness and exaggerate arrested development. Beneath all that, though, is a wholly realistic premise: that every word of Dewey’s rebel rhetoric is essentially meaningless, because rock has long since become a wholesome activity like sports or classical theater. He can fob it off as a valid physical and creative challenge for grade-school kids precisely because its seditious edge is nil. The principal herself suggests incorporating it into the curriculum near the end.
The makers of this musical made some smart decisions to maximize its punch—chief among them, casting Alex Brightman as Dewey. Brightman is both amazingly good at channeling Black’s antics and amazingly good at adding his own touches without seeming to try too hard. He plays the role even faster and more energetically than Black did (unfathomable as that may seem), staying on the zany side of anger always so that he can come off as implicitly gentle and unthreatening even when yelling in kids’ faces.
This aura of safety is crucial to the trick of having a sloppy, scruffy, beer-guzzling loser in charge of a bunch of kids for two acts without tripping our sleaze-alarms. Interestingly, the kids here are younger (at least younger looking) than those in the movie. The movie kids looked 12 or 13. Dewey says the ones in the musical are 10, but most important, they all have unambiguously pre-adolescent bodies. They’re bursting with excess energy but they haven’t yet budded sexually. They therefore don’t carry the chaotic sexual urgency of rock convincingly in their bodies, however expertly they might play their rock-band instruments. The traditional hip-and chest-pumping of rock performance is all still a game of imitation for them, which invites us to heave a sigh of relief along with their parents at the end when they come offstage and seem briefly innocent again.
As you might expect, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s songs are largely forgettable 80s/90s-style big beat rock. Some numbers have a glam-metal aftertaste, others a grunge or power pop flavor, but—with one or two lovely exceptions—all feel sanded down into generic sameness and innocuousness. The real draw of this show (apart from Brightman) is the group of performing kids—thirteen fantastically talented spark plugs whose clarity, energy, focus, optimism and, yes, innocent beauty could wrench a smile from the grumpiest sourpuss. If I were a producer of Matilda: the Musical I’d be anxious now because that show has only a single measly prodigy. With its baker’s dozen, School of Rock: the Musical will likely be the hip show for restless tweens for years to come.