Andrew Lloyd Webber is on another roll right now. The undisputed King of the West End musical has just seen his 1971 show Jesus Christ Superstar win this year's Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical (for the summer revival at the Open Air Theatre that has now announced it is to return there in 2017) and The Phantom of the Opera celebrated its 30th anniversary in the West End last month. Meanwhile, in New York the latter is the longest running musical in Broadway history, and when Sunset Boulevard returns there in February (in the production starring Glenn Close that played at the London Coliseum over the summer), he will once again have four musicals playing simultaneously there, as it joins a revival of Cats and the world premiere production of School of Rock.
The last named was the first of his musicals to be premiered on Broadway ahead of the West End since Jesus Christ Superstar exactly 45 years ago, while next year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So as Lloyd Webber now brings School of Rock to the West End, it's a pleasure to report that he has not only returned to the youthful dynamism and energy of those earliest shows, but also that he's at last scored a direct hit, in every sense, for the first time in the 23 years since he added Sunset Boulevard to his catalogue.
The years in-between have seen a succession of middling hits and even outright flops, from Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game to The Woman in White, Love Never Dies and Stephen Ward. But the great thing about Lloyd Webber is that he neither rests of his laurels nor is unafraid to try new things.
Here, pairing up with Downton Abbey screenwriter Julian Fellowes, and at the inspired suggestion of his wife Madeleine Lloyd Webber (who also serves as this show's executive producer), he has adapted a hit 2003 film comedy for the stage, and turned it into his most accessible and enjoyable show in years.
Partly its the exuberance of a tale about kids put over by a cast led by a fantastic company of 13 kids. Jason Robert Brown created a musical called 13, about 13-year-olds, that was entirely played by a cast of that age; here, the pre-teens on display are joined by an adult cast, playing teachers and parents, that creates a bit more balance. Yet, of course, it is the kids who entirely steal the show.
It's based around a fairly simple story in which Dewey Finn, a dishevelled rock guitarist who has just been fired by his band and threatened by eviction from his home, too, 'steals' a job opportunity from his flatmate to be a supply teacher at a posh private prep school by pretending to be him. And when he discovers that his class are musically talented, decides to turn them into a rock band and enters them into a Battle of the Bands contest.
Of course it is all utterly improbable. Yet the fiction is delightfully maintained in Julian Fellowes's witty, knowing book, and Lloyd Webber brilliantly seizes he opportunity to return to his rock roots with a score that, like parts of Jesus Christ Superstar, relishes in loud rock riffs. That are played with furious intensity by a band of kids -- who all play live, albeit supported by a 7-piece live adult band, situated on a high platform stage left, conducted by Matt Smith -- gives it added pleasure. You cannot fail to be charmed and exhilarated, by turns.
Lloyd Webber has recently made an impressive public investment in the promotion of music education in schools, with his foundation donating £1.4m to the Music in Secondary Schools Trust that is enabling nearly 4,000 students to receive free instruments and tuition. Of course, he could simply be investing in training up future cast members for this show.
Be that as it may, the show also has a splendid adult cast, with Dewy Finn wonderfully played by the the coincidentally named David Fynn, Florence Andrews as the uptight head teacher Rosalie Mullins, and Oliver Jackson and Preeya Kalidas, as Dewey's unwilling flat mates.
The adult cast also includes Jonathan Bourne, Joel Montague, Michael Francis, Rosanna Hyland, Cassandra McCowan, Andy Rees, Lucy Vandi and Nadeem Crowe as various teachers and parents. (Impressively, Crowe's CV also states that he is also a doctor in internal and geriatric medicine at the Royal Free Hospital; how many West End ensembles can boast a working doctor amongst them?)
This is a show that is above all a lot of fun. I watched it beaming throughout.
School of Rock tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"This is Lloyd Webber’s most exuberant show in years and, at a time of general gloom, is dedicated to the great cause of cheering us all up."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The most enjoyable few hours money can buy."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"David Fynn is bliss as Dewey. In a performance of explosive energy and scapegrace charm."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"The exuberant silliness of this fresh and charming musical feels like a seasonal tonic."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard