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After bursting onto the West End stage late last year Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest Olivier Award-winning musical School of Rock has quickly gone on to inspire audiences, commanding return visitors and bringing new audiences to musical theatre. Based on the popular film of the same name starring Jack Black the musical features an exceptionally talented cast of adult and child performers who bring this powerful story of 'sticking it to the man' to the stage.
Having previously played the alternative Dewey Finn for three performances per week original cast member Gary Trainor will take over the role full time from 17 May at the New London Theatre. We caught up with Trainor ahead of the announcement to talk about his unique journey so far in the role as well as his co-star Preeya Kalidas who created the role of Patty Di Marco in the West End production.
“It's been fantastic” Kalidas confirms as I ask her to reflect on the six month run of the show to date. “It's great to be part of an original production and working with a great team in a fantastic show that's inspiring and uplifting. We get to work with very talented children. You know they say don't work with children or animals – well I do not believe that particularly when it comes to kids because these kids are awesome.”
Anyone who has seen the production can attest to the fact that the cast of children are exceptionally talented, so much so that this was recently rewarded with the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Achievement in Music.
“They're great” echoes Trainor, “I've worked with less professional adults to be honest! Since we opened in November it's been a whirlwind, there's such a hype about it, for an actor that's just amazing. We've all been in the shows that we believe in and we love but just can't get the bums on seats – to have such a buzz about all the time, it's amazing.”
The pressures on opening a new musical in the West End are familiar to both Preeya and Gary, but thanks to the excellent reception School of Rock received on Broadway back in 2015 there was every chance that the London production could replicate that success.
“I think there's more pressure when you have a transition from film to stage because people obviously have expectations” Preeya explains. “I think what the team have managed to do is incredible, create a fantastic piece of theatre with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew at heart is a rocker and he proves it with School of Rock because it's fantastic – it represents his wonderful genius.”
No stranger to Lloyd Webber shows, Preeya's previous West End credits include the revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Bombay Dreams, shows that have placed her at the heart of West End Theatre.
“Andrew has taken the film and put music to it that's just perfect” Gary adds. “It doesn't feel clunky, it doesn't fee shoehorned in, there's a perfect arch and the rock routes are there with a flavour of Phantom and Sunset Boulevard. It appeals to so many people and that is the commercial holy grail. You've got the theatre lovers who want to see Webber's new work, you've got the film lovers who want to see what they have done to this and they come out really pleased. Then you've also got the families and the kids.”
The role of Dewey Fin is exceptionally energetic and places significant demands on performers who have to carry much of the energy of the show as well as deliver some of the musical's loudest anthems.
“He's a big child – he's a clown in a way” Gary laughs. “A man child, as many of the critics have described him. There's no getting around that, he wants to be a rocker. You hear the laughter of 7, 8, 9 year olds – they laugh heartier than all the other people around them and then it brings the rest of the audience in too. It's irreverent in places and in a good way – good escapism.”
The role itself was one that Gary identified with straight away, and despite already starring in the West End production of Beautiful he wrote a passionate handwritten letter to both Lloyd Webber and bookwriter Julian Fellowes to make sure he could get seen for the role.
“I love the show, I fought tooth and nail to get into it. I knew as soon as I heard School of Rock was coming into town that I needed to be in it. I tried my hardest to get seen for it and thankfully I did. I wrote letters, I even pretended to be someone else and tried to get a direct address for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Two weeks after we started rehearsals Julian Fellowes wrote me a wonderful letter saying he was so glad it worked out and that he loved the letter from the start, and glad they could help.”
This unconventional method may certainly sound like an inspirational 'dream come true' journey but it isn't particularly the correct method for everyone.
“Don't pester people” he laughs, “but if you know for a fact that you're right for something do everything in your ability to get in the door. It's about getting in the door – any agent or actor will say once you're in the door you can prove to them. Do your utmost – I thought I would do it off my own bat, I was going through the right channels anyway and I thought if this helps in any way I'll do it. It was a handwritten letter which I sent to Andrew and Julian, and they actually read it.”
With such a tenacious attitude I wondered what made Gary convinced that the role of Dewey Finn was right for him.
“I sang all my life, I gig quite a lot in Irish bars and I was always compared to the Irish Jack Black, the Irish Tenacious D sort of thing” he explains. “Even when the film was out I used to pretend to be him in drama classes. From the word go I always knew I had the ability to that part, then I listened to Andrew's score and I thought oh my god – it's very high! The sing is very challenging for me, I think I do it justice.”
It's certainly one of the most demanding lead roles in the West End and that challenge of stepping up to five performances a week is no doubt a daunting one.
“It's going to be hard in one sense and easy in another” Gary explains. “When you do five you're in a regimented regime and you don't have those breaks. You need to be on the ball. I think just stepping up that little bit further, he doesn't stop, it's like interval training. He gets two minutes or a minute and a half between each huge bit. The script gives you these beautiful gags and room to work with the kids and really bounce off them. Everyone one of the three groups gives you something different – every time I go on stage it's a different show, you go with it.”
With such an uplifting and powerful message School of Rock really is a West End show for all audiences. "Come and be inspired" Preeya suggests. "You will not leave that theatre without being inspired by a ten year old. Also having two and a half hours of laughing your head off. Every character on stage somebody can relate to".
"It's a great theatre and it's so intimate" affirms Trainor, "you feel like you're in a rock concert, it's escapism at its best."
School of Rock tickets are now on sale to 14 January 2018.