Review - School of Rock: The Musical on Broadway

Does Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical genuinely rock?

Evie Dolan and Alex Brightman in School of Rock
Evie Dolan and Alex Brightman in School of Rock. Matthew Murphy

Oh, the vicissitudes of theater. But a few years ago, the very thought of writing a positive review about an Andrew Lloyd Webber show would have seemed laughable in the extreme. I'm not one to automatically bash Sir Andrew, but there's little question that the man hasn't had a hit in almost three decades (not since 1988 with the still-running phenomenon The Phantom of the Opera).

What's more, he hasn't written what I would consider an accomplished score in almost 40 years.

Witness: 

  • The forgettable and forgotten: Stephen Ward, The Woman in White, Whistle Down the Wind 
  • The atrocious: Aspects of Love, Starlight Express 
  • The spotty and money-losing: Love Never Dies, Sunset Boulevard
  • The "classics" that are nonetheless replete with holes: Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, Cats 

It seemed as though Sir Andrew wasn't capable of writing a decent show without his original lyricist, Tim Rice. My own theory was that, like Barbra Streisand in the 1970s, Lloyd Webber had gotten to the point in his career where he was so powerful that nobody he was working with was comfortable telling him when something wasn't working. 

But then I saw School of Rock - The Musical, the rollicking new Lloyd Webber musical, based of course on the 2003 film starring Jack Black, that recently opened on Broadway. And now I'm thinking there might be a different explanation for his decades-long rough patch.

He needs to rock. School of Rock is at its best when Lloyd Webber is rediscovering his rock-and-roll roots, with such rousing show-stoppers as "You're in the Band" and "Stick It to The Man." 

Not that the show's rapid succession of three-chord arena anthems represents Lloyd Webber's most musically accomplished score, but it's fun and idiomatic, and gives the composer a chance to drop the operatic pretense and simply entertain.

The show's ballads are decidedly less successful, and recall the most infantile motives from Aspects of Love and Song and Dance

The second-act ballad "Where Did the Rock Go?," an introspective number for the Sierra Boggess love-interest character (played by Joan Cusack in the film), was the first time in the show that my attention started to flag. Plus the song represents yet another example of Lloyd Webber composing himself into a corner, as he did in "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in Sunset Boulevard, with a melody that has no logical resolution, so he has to introduce a new musical element to achieve melodic resolution. 

But on the whole, School of Rock is incredibly hard to resist. Why did no one think of putting a bunch of kids on stage playing rock and roll before? It's frickin' adorable. Despite the formulaic nature of the story -- substitute teacher, Dewey, teaches prep school kids how to break free from their over-programmed lives and loosen up -- School of Rock drew me in and had me on my feet cheering almost despite myself. 

Perhaps the special sauce here is librettist Julian Fellowes, Oscar-winning writer of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey. Fellowes' dialogue has the ring of truth about it, despite the occasional groaner.

(One of the kids says of the schoolteacher character, "He taught us that rock can set us free." Oy.) Some of the minor characters feel a bit two-dimensional, particularly Patty, the shrewish wife of Dewey's roommate. Some of the scenes strain credulity, particularly one in which the parents confront Dewey for his unconventional methods. And yet, we're supposed to believe these high-achieving, prototypical type-A personalities are just going to sit there and listen while Dewey predictably changes their entire parenting worldview.  

Lyricist Glenn Slater displays more of the distinct characterizations he created for the songs in the sadly underrated Leap of Faith, as well as the clever wordplay he exhibited in the best songs from The Little Mermaid (particularly "I Want the Good Time Back").

 The whole enterprise is aided immeasurably by Laurence Connor's tight direction and brisk pacing. (Although, on a side note, did I somehow miss when the law got passed that every Broadway musical must now end act one with a a crashing crescendo and a sudden blackout?) 

The cast of kids is, as I mentioned, downright adorable, including the hard-as-nails band manager Isabella Russo, the lovably dorky Jared Parker on keyboards, and the amazing Brandon Niederauer shredding up a storm on electric guitar. The always lovely Sierra Boggess could use a bit more meat to her role here as the school principal, but she shines as always, particularly in a comic rendition of the "Queen of the Night" aria from The Magic Flute. The major breakthrough performance here is Alex Brightman, a star in the making as Dewey. I mean, how do you follow Jack Black, right? And yet Brightman makes the part his own, endearingly exuberant and winning, without resorting to imitation.