School of Rock: Jack Black to the max

Everybody rocking

Now for something different from what I normally cover: a touring West End musical from Andrew Lloyd-Webber. This might seem out of kilter with what he’s done before. For the composer of the high drama of Phantom of the Opera and the experimental Cats (that’s the original stage version), a feel-good musical based on a popular film isn’t what I’d expect. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Dewey Finn is a slacker who has been sacked from his job for laziness and kicked out of his band for being an attention-seeker. His ex-rocker housemate and his ex-rocker girlfriends now have steady careers. When he is mistaken for his housemate and gets a supply teaching job in a prestigious private school he decides to recruit the kids into a new band. Will he succeed at form a band of rockers with bangin’ choons? Will Dewey discover for the first time in his life the joys of being looked up to as a role model? Will the parents of these kids who insist on a joyless life of geometry and history of antique furniture be blown away by the most awesomest Battle of the Bands performance and reconnect with the children in a new way? Apologies for giving away the entire plot with these rhetorical questions, but, be fair, it’s an easily guessable plot.

So, why did Lloyd-Webber pick a format so maligned? There is no shortage of films made into West end musicals, most of which are promptly forgotten. The biggest problem I think these shows have is that they specifically worked as films. Especially modern films which increasingly rely on CGI effects to wow cinema audiences. Nine times out of ten, even the best-resourced West End theatre can only produce a worse version of what already exists on screen. The difference here, I think, is an opportunity to do something better. It’s an open secret that most band performances in films are a heavily edited mix of actors pretending to play and session musicians providing a the real. Not nearly as impressive as the real thing. And, as Andrew Lloyd-Webber says at the start of the performance: yes, the kids on stage are really playing the instruments you see.

To some extent, playing instruments for real comes down to practicality. For most musical instruments, it’s next to impossible to mime playing it without it being obvious you’re not really playing. When you have all the talent of the West End or Broadway at your beck and call, it’s far easier to find some kids who can do the real thing. “Oh, but hahahahahahahaha!” I hear you say. “They might be playing, but they can’t be playing playing, can they? Surely the real band is playing along with them?” No, apparently not. I am pleased to report that Andrew Lloyd-Webber agrees with me that would be cheating. In the grand finale, when School of Rock takes to the stage, the stage band sit it out, let the kids do the thing, and instead take on the role of moshers in the mosh pit.

In the writing, however, is there one weakness. Julian Fellowes, I think, tries too hard to make Dewey Finn into Jack Black. You may think this is a strange criticism to make, seeing as the film was specifically written for Jack Black to play as the Jack Black character, and the film was a success for precisely this reason, but hear me out for a moment. The problem is that with much of a musical taking up by songs, time as it a premium with the dialogue, and that appears to be taken up with too much dicking around at the expense of everything else. I know you’re allowed to take certain liberties in musicals; it’s perfectly believable, for example, that we have a functioning rock group five minutes after they’re handed in the instruments. But I would still have liked a better explanation for how Dewey progresses from bone idle sponging douchebag in his first lesson to a teacher respected by the kids in the second. The love interest between Dewey and uptight principal had a lot of potential: a slacker who has for once in his life taken on some responsibilities, contrasted with Rosalie Mullins who is married to her job and has forgotten to have fun. But in this version they go from zero to out on a wonderful date with no intervening events or chemistry. Something important, I fear, has been lost in the transplant to the stage.

However, these shortcomings are offset by some nice touches elsewhere. Not everyone can be a rock musician but there’s plenty of other roles (says Dewey, before swiftly changing the subject when someone asks what groupies do – this is a family show folk). The star pupil, for example, can’t play any rock instrument or sing, but a bit of quick thinking sees her designated as manager, as she does an excellent job of organising everyone. For Lloyd-Webber fans there’s a lot of Easter Eggs around – congratulations to anyone who spotted Variation 7 from Variations. When one of the kids suggests Cats as a musical inspiration Dewey retorts “I never want to see that musical or that movie again!” I ought to tick him off for self-indulgence, but it was funny so I’ll counts it as a plus.

To some extent, Andrew Lloyd-Webber has the eternal “curse of the megahits”. When you’ve blown the West End away several times over, people’s expectations get set against the greatest and most most ground-breaking entries in the back catalogue. In that respect, School of Rock is quite tame, and plays it very safe compared to what’s come before. But this wasn’t supposed to be a ground-breaker, this was supposed to be a fun feel-good musical. In that respect, it does the job well: it uses a well-loved film that serves to achieve more on the stage instead of less, and brings the joys of a live performance that a film can never do. If that’s what you’re there for – and I’d expect nothing else from this story – you won’t be disappointed.

School of Rock continues to tour, and comes to Newcastle Theatre Royal next year (we hope) on the 28th March – 2nd April at Newcastle Theatre Royal.

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