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Andrew Lloyd Webber launches School of Rock the Musical in London's West End
Forty Five years after changing the face of musical theatre with the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber continues to stand at the forefront of modern musical theatre. Having introduced the rock sound into the theatre, first with Superstar and later through shows such as Evita and the equally innovative Cats, his latest West End project School of Rock the Musical combines not only his love of theatre but also his passion for music education and the “empowering force” of music.
Speaking at the London launch of the West End production, which opens at the New London Theatre, the same stage as his hit 1981 show Cats which went on to run for a record breaking 21 years, Lloyd Webber greeted a packed crowd by first addressing the importance of music in education. Each performance of School of Rock the Musical features a highly impressive cast of 13 young performers who all play their own instruments as well as act, sing and dance. A new generation of quadruple threat performers.
Having already launched the show in New York back in November 2015 at the Winter Garden Theatre (home of the original New York production of Cats), the musical comes to London already a hit with audiences and critics alike. It was the first of Lloyd Webber's musicals to premiere in New York first since Jesus Christ Superstar, and whilst usually not favoured by the New York literatti, School of Rock racked up an impressive set of notices and was described as "a rock solid hit"; "rejuvenating"; "huggable and kinetic" and "wondrously rebellious".
In a season dominated by Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton the show fought to be heard above the noise, and was nominated for four Tony Awards, including the all important award for Best New Musical. Despite losing out to the American juggernaut, the televised performance and excellent publicity boosted interest in the show and it has become one of Broadway's top earners, proving a hit with new audiences to the theatre.
One of the early reservations in opening the show cold in London came from the fact that the creative team would have to hire 39 children in order to comply with the UK labour laws that mean children's shows need to have at least three cast members per role in order for them to alternative performances. Whilst children heavy shows such as Billy Elliot and Matilda have both thrived in the West End, Lloyd Webber told about how he was initially cautious about what they would be able to find throughout a nationwide search:
“I'm not saying that they're not fantastic”, the composer told the crowd, “but the depth of musical talent that we auditioned I have to admit I wasn't sure we would find in the UK, and it's just incredible to think that these kids are playing this sort of music and they want to play live. I feared that they would all be into their computers and programme music but this proves that they aren't.”
Talking about his inspiration for bringing the successful film to the stage and returning to his rock roots, he told how it was his own kids that had inspired him to take on the challenge.
“They loved it ten years ago, my wife Madeline made me watch it and I thought it was rather fantastic. I had to chat to my heavy metal partner Julian Fellowes at the House of Lords. I asked him if he would be interested in writing the book and I originally thought we would use songs from the movie, but they are just fragments so I filled in...”
The book of the musical is written by 'Downton Abbey' creator Julian Fellowes, who may not seem the natural choice for a music that focuses on heavy rock music.
“After Downton it was a natural fit!” the Oscar Award-winner laughed. “I came to School of Rock the same way as Andrew with my son saying I would love this film. It surprised me, but I did absolutely love the film. It is true that we did have early meetings about the whole thing in the House of Lords...I was very enthusiastic, it was a big change. I had done six years of Downton and this was a wonderful opportunity. I love musicals. It's been a very happy job. We had a very good time in New York and I'm sure we'll have a good time here.”
Fellowes has had a great deal of success with musical theatre, having previously worked on the book of Mary Poppins alongside Cameron Mackintosh, George Stiles and Anthony Drewe – a production that has been seen all over the world. He is also currently working on a new adaptation of The Wind in the Willows which also premières later this year ahead of a West End run.
Talking about the skills involved in writing specifically for children, Fellowes commented that the key is “to forget that they are children and give them the dramatic situation and character definition and narrative that you'd give any character, then you find the right children and they make it happen...that's what's happened here.”
He was equally surprised at the talent found by the creative team, especially in regards to the cast of children on both sides of the Atlantic. “I had assumed we would have to make the children older to get the musical skills” he explained, “I didn't know as much about children's playing and I was so amazed when it got to the first day of rehearsals and there were all these kids playing instruments that were as big as they were. It's that for me that's been fantastic – seeing children playing the music.”
Director of both the London and New York productions Laurence Connor compared the difference between the USA and the UK in finding the necessary talent for the production. “In London in particular it was difficult because we needed three sets of children to play all the roles, so we needed to find 39 children who could all be part of School of Rock” he explained. “It was scary to say the least, the skill sets are incredibly difficult. I suppose I was nervous that we might not find people who could play with the calibre here, rock and roll is in the blood of the Americans, maybe not so much here but I was so wrong. The first day we opened the doors there was so much musical talent that we started to have the pick of the litter. I honestly thought we would have to start a camp to train children but it was thrilling to see them come in and play at that standard.”
It wasn't just the child cast that was a challenge, having found an incredible leading Broadway actor for the role in the Tony-nominated Alex Brightman the pressure was on to find an equivalent London performer with the same level of energy. The creative team introduced British actor David Finn. “We saw David in America about a year and a half ago – he was tremendous” explained Connor. “Right from the start Andrew and I really liked him and we knew that when we had the opportunity we would want him to be part of this, we talked about London right then. He's terrific, he's full of energy. He rocks and he's extremely funny.”
Speaking about who the musical appeals to, Lloyd Webber was quick to comment that he was determined to attract a new type of audience to the West End, talking about the wider appeal of School or Rock, especially young people who may not ordinarily go to the theatre.
“I put it in Broadway in a deliberately bigger theatre than maybe other people would have done because I wanted to do something that I want to keep doing here, and keep ticket prices low enough that it would break through to an audience who don't usually come to the theatre – young people who perhaps think that theatre is not for them” he explained. “It's been very rewarding in New York – it took about two or three months. Now the audience is very often kids walking up with $75 and asking for a ticket. That's a fantastic joy for all of us. The most wonderful thing, and the reason I did this show is music empowers – it's about the empowering force of music. The reason I love this story is because every character is somehow changed for the better through music. There's a transformation that every single character has and Julian has done that brilliantly as he has brought out the back stories of the children in a way that the film didn't. It's fantastic and we've got a rather different audience. And of course we have families and the normal Broadway audience but it's fantastic that we've been able to get kids involved too.”
Whether School of Rock will become a musical like Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats all those years ago that did widen the net for London audiences through their innovative marketing campaigns and legendary status, bringing in a different crowd to the theatre is yet to be seen. For Lloyd Webber however, it's a natural journey back to his roots, and a journey he is incredible excited to be on. “Really this is me going right back to something that I loved and it is almost squaring a circle”, he chuckled. “I would just say go and enjoy and realise what an empowering force music can be.”
School of Rock the Musical opens at the New London Theatre on 24 October 2016, with an official press night on 14 November 2016.