Andrew Lloyd-Webber has had it rough these last twenty years, with five clear failures in a row (six if you count that idiotic idea of adding original songs to a revival of The Wizard of Oz), but as a longtime supporter and devotee, I always argued that he could get himself back on top with the right idea. After all, the problem with all of those shows was the concepts rather than the music, which for the most part ranged from decent to excellent. Whatever the snobs may try to pretend, Webber is a genius-level composer, and I argued that all he needed was a good property to work his magic on. Well, he found it in a 2003 Jack Black film vehicle that was practically begging to be musicalized, and he now has a show so impressive that even those who despise him have to acknowledge the fact that he’s back on top.
This show is sort of a modern, Rock’n’Roll version of The Music Man, complete with the fraud who ultimately makes good, the organizing of a children’s band, and even a Marian-like strict academic enforcer who ultimately has her heart melted by the hero. But apart from the changes in setting, time period and music, this show is rather like if The Music Man had focused on Harold’s relationship with Winthrop rather than Marian, as apart from the lead, the most important characters are the kids, and the show is really about their bond with this unlikely mentor (in fact, the love plot isn’t even introduced until well into Act Two).
The main character, Dewey Finn, thus bears a certain vague resemblance to Will Schuester from Glee, at least in terms of his role in the plot, but drunken, illiterate slob though he is, the show makes the positive influence he’s supposed to have on the kids’ lives far more convincing than Glee ever came close to doing. He starts out making a bad impression on both characters and audience, but by the end he has become an immensely sympathetic figure and a genuine force for good…all through the Power of Rock.
The original movie was enjoyable enough, but the stage version is actually much more satisfying, and ironically, much of that has to do with the absence of the star for whom the film was written, Jack Black. Don’t get me wrong…Black is a brilliant comedian and a surprisingly good singer, and he could probably play this part in his sleep. But that’s kind of the problem…Black had been playing this same character for so long, first in Tenacious D and then in earlier movies like High Fidelity, that there really wasn’t much freshness or creativity left in it by the time School of Rock came around. And while the stage Dewey is still very much a Jack Black type, his stage portrayers have to actually figure out who the character is instead of just going through the motions.
Moreover, because Jack Black had been playing this exact character since the beginning of his career, when we first meet his Dewey we already know everything there is to know about him. Whereas, as I stated, in the stage show he initially comes off as an obnoxious and irresponsible jerk, only for us to gradually realize what a good person he’s capable of being as teaching the kids brings out the best in him. None of this is possible in the movie, where every potential nuance of the character is immediately conveyed by the shorthand of Black’s trademark persona.
I’m sure you’re wondering about the score, since it was Lloyd-Webber’s actual contribution, and I’ll say this much…Webber may have looked ridiculous in the metal poses he adopted for some of this show’s promotional photos, but even at 67, the man has proved he can sure as Hell write convincing Metal (granted, it’s Eighties-style Metal, not the ultra-extreme fare that dominates the genre today, but it’s still pretty damned impressive). It couldn’t have been easy to walk the line of making songs that rocked out convincingly but still sounded natural being sung by kids, and he pulled it off beautifully.
More typical of Webber’s style is the prim, precise classical music used to contrast the fussy school faculty from Dewey, or the gently plaintive “If Only You Would Listen” for the children, which sounds rather reminiscent of the songs for the kids in Whistle Down the Wind. And while, as I said, the romantic subplot with the school’s principal is almost an afterthought, the song that sums it up, the gorgeous ballad “Where Did the Rock Go?”, is so moving that it’s really all this plot thread needed.
The show’s only flaw is the character of Patty, the harpy-like girlfriend of Dewey’s roommate and the show’s one clear antagonist. She’s a one-note, one-dimensional villain with no real motivation beyond pure spite, but after the show was smart enough to drop her horribly mean-spirited villain song, “Give Up Your Dreams”, she became a fairly minor character, a sort of living plot device, which helped neutralize the show’s only real problem. This is definitely a feel-good show…with the exception of that one character, everyone in the show is ultimately sympathetic and well-intentioned, even if they need a wake-up call to realize it.
And while Alex Brightman is phenomenal as Dewey and seems poised to be the next big Broadway star, the real stars of the cast are the kids, who play their own instruments and do so better than many famous Heavy Metal musicians. Webber is back on top, my friends, and as a longtime supporter, I couldn’t be more thrilled to see it. The snobs can say whatever they like…they said the same things about Verdi and Puccini back in the day, after all…but that doesn’t change the fact that Andrew Lloyd Webber is a musical and theatrical genius. Even though a few people still seem to be in denial about it, Webber has already been vindicated by history, and now that his late-career slump has ended with a triumphant comeback, only the extremely stupid would try to question his achievements at this point.