My love of musical theatre has led me to encounter some shows that are incredibly special to me that began life on the other side of the Atlantic. There’s Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star, Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County, and more recently, a reimagining of my favourite Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame with new music from Alan Menken and Steven Schwartz, which retains the Disney score and infuses it with more of Victor Hugo’s original novel. I genuinely love London’s theatre scene, but regularly find myself a teensy bit jealous of my American friends who have access to certain performers I’ve come to admire and will most likely never get to see because travelling in my circumstances is a logistical nightmare, and on a simpler level I just don’t have the funds. Some of them might likely tell you they feel the same jealousy with certain performers we have based here; I guess it’s an amusing vicious circle that we share! I’ve noticed in my admittedly few years of regular theatregoing that shows tend to have a very strong likelihood of going over to Broadway, but the reverse is a rarity (at least I think so!) which I think is a shame as we miss out on some amazing pieces and potential for audiences to see something totally different. Also, many West End performers are being snapped up for work on and off Broadway (including two of my favourites, and a third who I haven’t had the joy of seeing onstage beyond a handful of songs at a concert whilst he was amid having made his Broadway debut back in 2015). I wish more performers were afforded the same opportunity to come over to London.
My personal gripes are by the by however, because every so often a show does come along fresh from the Great White Way. One of my favourite films is 2003’s School of Rock and it was a bittersweet moment when in 2015 it was announced it had been adapted into a Broadway musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Glenn Slater and a Book by Julian Fellowes. Once more the familiar green eyed monster reared its ugly head. I contented myself with the Original Broadway Cast Recording and any Youtube clips of performances the cast did on American TV that I could find, living vicariously through my American friends, and the Brits who were lucky enough to travel over and see it. After the Broadway opening, Lord Webber announced that the West End production would open in 2016, originally rumoured to be playing at the Palladium, eventually confirmed instead for the New London, home previously to Show Boat and War Horse. This news devastated me, thanks to what I then referred to as the ‘paragraph of doom’ on the website that handles the theatre’s access bookings:
“Wheelchair access is via a goods lift to the first level and then a quick transfer to a second lift.
Please note the width of the second lift door is 70 cm (27.5″) wide (depth 83cm – 36.2″) and will not accommodate many sizes of wheelchair especially most electric wheelchairs or scooters. Most people with wider wheelchairs will need to temporarily transfer to a small house wheelchair to access the auditorium. We strongly advise you to check the measurements of the wheelchair before booking, especially if you are unable to transfer to the house wheelchair.”
Luckily, my ever-pragmatic dad, who knew how upset I was by this, reckoned we could get my chair in, so I took a punt and booked a pair of tickets for early November. We were on our way into London and it was an hour or so before showtime, when I get a call on my mobile. I didn’t recognise the number, so I let it go to voicemail. Turns out it was the theatre manager, who, immensely apologetic, informed me that the lift was broken and the engineer wasn’t able to get the part today, and so I couldn’t attend the show. I kid you not, it took all my resolve to stop myself bursting into tears on the phone to her. She very kindly proceeded to phone round the other Really Useful Theatres to try and get us in somewhere for the matinee, a long shot given the time. Unsuccessful, my tickets were refunded and my next trip was on the house. I spent almost three weeks trying to rearrange the trip, and it included a whole bunch of calls I made, ones I missed, staff being away from the office, and so on. Then, on 23rd November, I got a call from Craig, who that day, was my hero and managed to book me in again to see the show in the new year.
Happily, I didn’t get any more phonecalls and January 15th saw us make it to the New London Box Office without further incident. Dad and I decided to “scope out” where we would be with the lift situation; whether he’d have to lift me into the house wheelchair or not. I wasn’t overly thrilled by this thought, as my own wheelchair has a seat specially designed for my posture and enables me to sit comfortably and I don’t have to worry about needing to be sat up as much, because Dad wasn’t watching the show with me to help on that score either if I should have to transfer. So, we asked if we could see if my chair would manage before the show began, before I headed off to meet my friend for a pre-show lunch. I can’t praise the staff enough, they understood our concerns and couldn’t do enough for us. To our relief and my joy even though the size of the lift, the position of my feet needing slight adjustment and my chair being manoeuvred so the door could shut in such a way that leaves my poor father pinned in a rather uncomfortable position against the lift wall… the house wheelchair wasn’t needed.
You know that old chestnut that you should never get your hopes up about something you’ve been waiting ages for because the anticipation means it’ll not be as good as you hope? In the case of this show, at least in my mind anyway, it’s emphatically, joyously untrue. I don’t think I stopped smiling from start to finish; not least because the minute I entered and was told where I’d be sitting, my view felt like I was in an arena!
If you don’t know the film, it follows down and out aspiring Rockstar Dewey Finn who in need of some cash, poses as a substitute teacher at prestigious prep school Horace Green and sets out to turn his class of straight A students into a mind-blowing rock band. My favourite work of Lord Webber’s is Jesus Christ Superstar, so I am overjoyed to see him make a return to his “rock roots” here. The score features some truly infectious and face melting melodies, my favourites being Stick It To The Man and You’re In The Band. That said, there are also moments of real warmth and tenderness in If Only You Would Listen which I felt added another dynamic that the film didn’t I think touch on as well as it could have: namely the children’s frustration at their parents, and a reprise where they thank Dewey for the difference he has made to their lives. Principal Mullins also gets a starring solo with Where Did The Rock Go, a song that I fell in love with from first listen as it fleshes out her character more than the film does. I think it’s fair to say the number of reprises in the score sometimes gets a little repetitive, but the way I looked at it was it was Lord Webber and Glenn Slater trying to drive home their creative point in making this more than an adaptation of the film, and emphasising the joy one can find in the power of music and staying true to yourself. It was also fun to see the Lord do things in his scores like slide in a cheeky reference to Cats and let loose with writing a Battle a la Guitar Hero for Dewey & Ned.
At the performance I was eventually lucky enough to attend, I found out a few days before I had the privilege of seeing Gary Trainor, the Alternate Dewey. I know Gary from his time over at Beautiful, where he played record producer Donnie Kirshner, and when casting was announced for School of Rock I was thrilled and longed to see Gary in the role, as it it’s completely different to the role I already knew and loved him for! Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint in the slightest; capturing the essence of Jack Black (who played Dewey in the film), but firmly putting his own stamp on the character. His energy and enthusiasm is boundless and he had me properly belly laughing to the point of near distracting hiccups on multiple occasions. In the musical, Dewey also shares some lovely emotional moments with the kids and Principal Mullins that warmed my heart and lovely watching Gary and Florence play these, one in particular between Dewey & Tomika and another between Mason and Ms Mullins had me choked up! Since seeing Gary, I’ve been telling all my friends who have already seen David Fynn, the principal Dewey, that they must go back and see Gary; especially if they saw him in Beautiful because he’ll blow their minds!
I was also thrilled to see Florence Andrews had joined the cast, having seen and thoroughly adored Once three times during its West End run. She has a wonderful voice, hitting notes I could only dream of and I found myself more convinced by her character arc here than I am with the film, thanks to Florence’s grace and moments of razor sharp delivery.
Other special mentions for the adult cast go to Jonathan Bourne who has a three pronged attack as Jeff/Gabe/Billy’s Dad and thus made me smile and be frustrated on Billy’s behalf in equal measure, popping up in all three so seamlessly I almost forgot they were being handled by him by himself, Alfie Parker who was on for Mr Williams and absolutely hilarious, Michelle Francis who was on for Patti, Ned’s girlfriend, and Oliver Jackson, perfect as Dewey’s nerdy and downtrodden pal Ned. Those names aside, I loved the adults across the board; they throw themselves at this show with as much heart and energy as the kids.
Speaking of the kids, my god are they talented! My band for the afternoon was made up of Jake Slack (Zack), Sophia Pettit (Katie), Noah Key (Freddy), Oscar Francisco (Lawrence), Adithi Sujith (Tomika), Leah Levman (Marcy) and Jaydah Bell- Ricketts (Shonelle). I was either in awe of their prowess at their respective instruments, or particularly in Adithi’s case, how such a powerful voice can possibly come out of her petite frame! Class was completed by Eva Trodd (Summer), Logan Walmsley (Billy), Lucas Chow (Mason), Bradley Bissett (James), Grace Schneider (Sophie) and Zac Dowlatshahi (Matthew). All of them were a joy to watch, and in my opinion the Battle/Finale are worth the ticket price alone; I haven’t been in an audience so swept up and receptive to rockin’ out in a long time!
Elsewhere, Anna Louizos scenic and costume design add oomph and personality to what I think is a really hard stage to dress, and Natasha Katz (Lighting) and Mick Potter (Sound) really get to let loose and have fun, a trait also abundant in Laurence Connor’s directing.
You can say I’ve been incredibly late in “handing in my homework” writing this so long after the event. All the same, I wanted to say a massive thankyou to the cast and creative team because it meant a lot for me to finally get there. I look forward to whenever I’m next in class 😉