'School of Rock' true to Andrew Lloyd Webber's rocking roots

School of Rock. Rob Colletti and cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Rob Colletti and his young castmates in the national touring production of ‘School of Rock’,’ coming to Denver starting May 29. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

From Cats to kids: The knighted musical-theatre composer has long had a winning way with animals and children

By Suzanne Yoe
For the DCPA NewsCenter

It’s sometimes easy to forget how Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber got his start. After all, with a string of West End and Broadway hits including The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Evita and Sunset Boulevard among many others, rock ‘n roll seems, well … a bit out of sync. 

Yet this knighted composer — yes, he does bear the somewhat lofty title of “Sir” — is also considered the father of the rock musical. He actually got his start with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat followed closely by Jesus Christ Superstar.

Andrew Lloyd Webber quoteFitting, then, that School of Rock, the 2003 Paramount Pictures film starring then little-known actor Jack Black, caught his attention.

When down-on-his-luck rocker Dewey Finn can’t pay the rent, he poses as a substitute teacher at an elite private school. Not exactly the teacher type (and in need of a quick infusion of cash), he transforms these prep-school preteens into confidence-commanding rock stars who compete for $20,000 in the local Battle of the Bands competition.

The plot of the musical hearkens back to Lloyd Webber’s professional beginnings. “I started with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was a piece written for a school performance. And it’s taking me back to something that I really care very deeply about, which is the importance of music in schools and education.

“It’s really about how music changes the lives of the kids in the show, and also changes the life of the leading man, because he finds himself, in a way, through the children and the music they’re making.”

Even though the movie is about music performed by schoolchildren, there is really very little music in the film itself, which intrigued Lloyd Webber. “Originally, the idea was first mooted to me by my wife, Madeleine, who got the rights to the whole thing. I thought maybe it was something that we would flesh out with existing rock songs, because there were a few in the original movie. But when I got into it … there was only the song we all called ‘Teacher’s Pet’ and then ‘The Legend of the Rent.’ So, I thought that it really did need a score.”

To fully flesh out the story for the stage, Lloyd Webber realized he needed a dramatist with a major career. Lloyd Webber tapped Julian Fellowes, whose career has spanned television (“Downton Abbey”), film (The Tourist) and theatre (Mary Poppins).

Moving from what, to some, might seem more classical works into the world of rock, wasn’t an obvious transition. “It’s always good to do something that’s completely outside your kind of tame territory,” said Fellowes. “I was thrilled when Andrew asked me if I’d do it. Sometimes you have to talk yourself into things. But I knew I wanted to do it straight away.

“I think my job was to give a kind of emotional imperative, a kind of emotional path, for all of the different characters, which is either suggested or pretty clearly delineated,” Fellowes said. “And then to add that to the central comedy of the situation. But I hope we’ve been very faithful to the film, too. I want people who adored the film to have a really good evening in the theater.”

Lloyd Webber rounded out the team with Broadway lyricist Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid) and director Laurence Connor (Les Misérables), neither of whose credits might scream “rock ‘n roll,” either.

School of Rock. Hernando Umana and Rob Colletti. Photo by Matthew MurphyWhile the creative team might seem anything but typical, what’s even more surprising is that, ultimately, the show’s success relies almost entirely on the talents of 9- to 13-year olds. The 12 children on stage who literally steal the show are required to be quadruple threats — act, sing, dance and play an instrument. More than 22,000 children responded to the original Broadway casting call.

“We watched some incredible kids playing instruments,” said Connor. “But what we didn’t know was whether they would be cohesive as a band. So, in the end, we brought about 24 children into a room, and we set up some amps and plugged in some guitars and set up a drum kit, and they just played. The first band we put together just rocked. It was emotional. I mean, I think we all had little tears in our eyes. I think it really goes down as my favorite audition of all time.”

(Pictured at right: Hernando Umana and Rob Colletti in the national touring production of ‘School of Rock.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.)

And they really can play,” Webber said. “It’s extraordinary for their ages, just how great they are, and how together they play. I mean, you could close your eyes and say, ‘Oh gosh, this is a band that’s played together for years.’ You wouldn’t really think it’s 10- and 11-year olds.”

Though W.C. Fields famously warned: “Never work with children or animals,” Lloyd Webber can say (somewhat tongue in cheek) that he’s done both and come out unscathed. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was first performed by 8- to 12-year-old boys. Then, he debuted Cats, which remains the fourth longest-running show in Broadway history. Now, he’s bringing audiences the inspiring, fist pumping, heartwarming story in School of Rock — opening May 29 at the Buell Theatre.

DCPA Director of Communications and Cultural Affairs Suzanne Yoe has been working for the Denver Center for 23 years.

School of Rock:
Ticket information

school-of-rockBased on the hit film, this new musical comedy follows Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher who turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band. This high-octane score features 14 new songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber, all the original songs from the movie and musical theater’s first-ever kids rock band playing their instruments live on stage.

  • National touring production
  • Performances May 29 though June 10
  • Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
  • Call 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE

School of Rock. Rob Colletti and Phoenix Schuman. Photo by Matthew Murphy. Rob Colletti and Phoenix Schuman in the national touring production of ‘School of Rock.’ Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Hometown trivia:
The original Broadway production co-starred Sierra Boggess as Rosalie Mullins. She is a Denver native and graduate of George Washington High School. (She is not appearing in the national touring production.)

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