In 2003, when the Richard Linklater film School of Rock came out, I was 9 years old. I was in the third grade and had not yet discovered music. All I really knew was what my then 49 year-old ex-hippie parents listened to: The Beatles, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and not much else; the film was an easy sell for me, and of course I loved it, watching it many times over the following few years. Linklater’s film takes place at a private elementary school on the east coast. A washed-up rocker, desperate for rent money, pretends he is his substitute-teacher roommate and takes a job at said school. Over the course of the film he teaches his class how to rock, redeems himself in the eyes of his peers, and disrupts rigid conservatism on all fronts.
When I first heard, in 2013, that the film was to be adapted to a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber of The Phantom of the Opera fame, I was excited. Though I didn’t imagine I would myself see the production, the decision seemed to make sense, the source material was ripe for a musical interpretation, and I enjoyed the idea that a childhood favorite of mine was to be celebrated in this way. As it happened, on November 10, 2015, I found myself at Broadway’s Winter Garden theater for the musical’s second night of previews. Excitement quickly turned to disappointment, but ultimately I left the two and a quarter hour production begrudgingly entertained.
School of Rock the movie and School of the Rock the play are, besides the differences inherent in their media, almost exactly the same. That is the production’s major flaw. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ve seen the musical. For the most part, it is as strong a production with as skilled a cast as one would expect to see on Broadway, but as an adaptation, conceptually, it is tepid at best. Essentially, the film is copied and pasted onto the stage: Julian Fellowes has written an unexceptional book. Tara Rubin Casting has done a fantastically boring and predictable job, casting every character almost exactly as they are cast in the film. That said, the actors they cast are all very skilled. Alex Brightman, who plays the lead, Dewey Finn, hits every note and embodies his character with all necessary enthusiasm, but besides his singing, he is a carbon copy of Jack Black, who plays his character in the film. He looks like him. He talks like him. His singing—in part due to unexceptional lyrics by Glenn Slater and unexciting music by Webber—is not interesting. The only insight his performance gave me on the character that Black didn’t in the film is the predictability of Black as an actor—Brightman’s performance was a tribute to a 2000s actor who was never interesting enough to deserve a tribute. Indeed, the production itself is a tribute to a 12-year-old film that was never noteworthy enough to deserve a tribute—at least not so soon. It has actually tainted my fondness for the film, highlighting much about it that is quite unappealing. Is it really smart to cast an Asian girl in the musical where an Asian girl was cast in the film, just to maintain a unnecessarily racist Lucy Liu joke?
School of Rock has one saving grace: children. As with the film, the most enjoyable aspect of the plot is that the schoolchildren are freed somewhat from the rigid structure of their lives and given agency, all by the creative power of music. That’s an endearing and enduring message, and the one aspect of the production that has truly benefitted in its move from screen to stage. There are ten children in this production. They all sing on stage, and the five that are in the class band play their instruments live on stage. Bobbi MacKenzie, as Tomika, gives a beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The agency granted children through their creative talents in the plot occurs on a real level for the child actors in both the film and the musical, but it is much more tangible and thrilling to watch on stage. As the curtain fell, the rest of the audience and I gave enthusiastic applause—largely, at least for my part, as tribute to the impressive work of the child cast.
Don’t go to see School of Rock with high expectations. Don’t go to see it if you want complex and critical entertainment. Watch the film. If you feel like watching it performed live, then, and only then should you go to see the musical. Go if it warms your heart to see talented children dominate a Broadway stage. It opens December 6, 2015, and closes June 11, 2016.