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Mark Shenton: Lloyd Webber’s epic theatrical journey adds a new twist with School of Rock

School of Rock – The Musical will transfer to the West End in 2016. Photo: Matthew Murphy School of Rock – The Musical will transfer to the West End in 2016. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Last Sunday, Andrew Lloyd Webber – the ultimate showman among composers – opened his latest show on Broadway, School of Rock. It’s his first show to open there ahead of a West End run since Jesus Christ Superstar right at the start of his career, when a Broadway version in 1971 predated its first West End run the following year, and where it would become the longest running musical in West End history before it closed eight years later at the Palace Theatre. Lloyd Webber would, of course, repeatedly break his own record, with Cats taking over as the longest running musical on Broadway until it eventually closed on its 21st birthday and was eventually overtaken by Les Miserables.

But Jesus Christ Superstar, as he confessed in an interview in the New York Times recently, taught him an important early lesson. David Itzkoff reported:

Mr Lloyd Webber recalls his first viewing of that show, produced by Robert Stigwood and directed by Tom O’Horgan, as “the worst day of my life.” The production was too ornate and too glitzy by his reckoning, and he was powerless to stop it.

“What can you do if you’re 23 years old?” Mr. Lloyd Webber said.

Lloyd Webber is now 67, and in the intervening 44 years, he has taken a controlling interest in all of his properties through his own production company, The Really Useful Group, and its theatre-owning subsidiary Really Useful Theatre. RUG is responsible for two of the biggest musicals, co-produced with Cameron Mackintosh, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Both of those shows disproved the power of the New York Times over New York theatre, surviving damning – even hostile – reviews from then-critic Frank Rich, to become the longest running musicals of all time in turn in New York (where Phantom is still running now at the Majestic Theatre, and Cats is said to be eyeing a Broadway return next year).

Rich, in fact, predicted success for Cats, whatever his misgivings, in the opening paragraph of his 1982 review:

There’s a reason why Cats, the British musical which opened at the Winter Garden last night, is likely to lurk around Broadway for a long time — and it may not be the one you expect. It’s not that this collection o anthropomorphic variety turns is a brilliant musical or that it powerfully stirs the emotions or that it has an idea in its head. No, the reason why people will hunger to see Cats is far more simple and primal than that that: It’s a musical that transports the audience into a complete fantasy world that could only exist in the theatre and yet, these days, only rarely does. Whatever the other failings and excesses, even banalities, of Cats, it believes in purely theatrical magic, and on that faith it unquestionably delivers.

In a collected edition of Rich’s reviews of his tenure as critic of the paper called Hot Seat, he reflects on the success of Cats, and admits:

It was in retrospect the most influential Broadway production of its era, proving that there was a bottomless tourist audience for a show that pushed spectacle over content and that indeed required virtually no knowledge of English to be appreciated, whether by young children or foreign visitors. With ticket prices rising into the stratosphere, the success of Cats made it difficult for less-lavish musicals to compete. Audiences wanted to see where all their money went… It could also be argued that Cats eventually led to Disney’s arrival on Broadway, since it implicitly showed Disney the potential for exploiting cartoon animals – and the animated movies containing them – as stage musicals.

But if Rich was grudging in his admiration for the stagecraft of Cats if not its content, he was downright hostile to the arrival, in turn, of Song and Dance in 1985, Starlight Express in 1987 and then The Phantom of the Opera in 1988. Of Song and Dance, he wrote, “As is this composer’s wont, the better songs are reprised so often that one can never be quite sure whether they are here to stay or are simply refusing to leave.”

For Starlight Express, his review opened lethally by quoting Lloyd Webber’s own programme note, saying that he had conceived the show as an entertainment “event” for children who love trains, and wrote:

Over two numbering hours later, you may find yourself wondering exactly whose children he has in mind. A confusing jamboree of piercing noise, routine roller-skating, misogyny and Orwellian special effects, Starlight Express is the perfect gift for the kid who has everything except parents.

By the time Phantom opened, though, the war became personal, since it starred Lloyd Webber’s then-wife Sarah Brightman. Rich would say of her:

The icily attractive Ms Brightman possesses a lush soprano by Broadway standards but reveals little competence as an actress. After months of plying Phantom in London, she still simulates fear and affection alike by screwing her face into bug-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked poses more appropriate to the Lon Chaney film version.

The review had repercussions: it led to a long-running feud between the composer and the critic. Again, in Hot Seat, Rich adds a postscript: “This review thrust me into a farcical international sparring match with Lloyd Webber, who has made a second career of crying all the way to the bank.”

That much is true – for all that Rich had strenuously disliked them, these shows were hits. But as so often happens in the theatre, a run of successes was soon followed instead by a run of shows that performed considerably less well: Rich, again in the reviewer’s seat for Aspects of Love, opened his review of that show’s Broadway transfer in 1990 with a big dig, and then followed it with an even bigger one.

He wrote, “Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer who is second to none when writing musicals about cats, roller-skating trains and falling chandeliers, has made an earnest but bizarre career decision in Aspects of Love. He has written a musical about people. Whether Aspects of Love is a musical for people is another matter.” 

It would run for just under a year.

Lloyd Webber’s next show, Sunset Boulevard, ran longer on Broadway – but lost a lot more money. Rich was again part of its history, reviewing the show unfavourably during its London run at the Adelphi with a critique that led directly to the decision to replace its original London star Patti LuPone with Glenn Close for Broadway. He wrote of LuPone:

Ms LuPone is a gifted actress whose vocal pyrotechnics are especially idolised by the British, not least because their own musical theatre stars can rarely match them. Yet despite her uncanny mimicry of Gloria Swanson’s speaking voice and her powerhouse delivery of the score’s grand if predictable ballads, she is miscast and unmoving as Norma Desmond.

Rich said of its subsequent Broadway life that it achieved “its final headlines as the costliest flop in Broadway history – the ultimate ‘hit’ flop, since it ran more than two years. Given the financial settlements paid to LuPone and [Faye] Dunaway [who was fired from the LA production before she was due to open in it there], the extravagances of the production and losses piled up by its road companies, Broadway hands estimated the total Sunset loss at a record $20million.” (That loss would later, of course, be far eclipsed by the debacle of Spider-man Turn off the Dark.)

Lloyd Webber next, in 1996, tried to premiere a new musical directly in America and bypass the West End, since he and his collaborators (including lyricist Jim Steinman and director Hal Prince) had relocated the English story it is based on to the US, but it shut after its out-of-town try-out in Washington DC without reaching the Martin Beck where the front-of-house had already gone up. (It instead came to London to open in a different production directed by Gale Edwards in 1998.) The show after that, The Beautiful Game, premiered in the West End in 2000 but never got to Broadway, and The Woman in White (2005) was damned with faint praise when Rich’s successor Ben Brantley wrote, “It’s not a terrible show, but it’s an awfully pallid one.” It ran for a little over three months.

When Lloyd Webber came to announce Love Never Dies, a sequel to Phantom of the Opera, he initially boldly proclaimed that it would open on three continents simultaneously: in the West End, on Broadway and in China. As the Daily Mail reported at the time in late 2008:

Rehearsals with three full casts will take place in South East London from August 17 for three months. Soon after its Adelphi inaugural, it will open at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre and then, around next April, the cast from Toronto will drop down to Broadway – winding up in all likelihood at the Neil Simon Theatre. Sometime, in the middle of all this, a production of Love Never Dies will open in Shanghai.

Jack O’Brien, its original director, was quoted saying, “It makes sense, rather than spend time doing this over a course of two or three years.” And, by rehearsing all three companies simultaneously, it was intended to give them all a sense of “ownership” of the project.

That, of course, never transpired – and the show, in fact, turned into one of Lloyd Webber’s biggest debacles, finally opening in London alone in March 2010, closed down in November that year for new changes to be implemented under the stewardship of Bill Kenwright, but closed by the following August. (It subsequently had a much more successful Australian production that was filmed for DVD release and has recently opened in Hamburg.)

No wonder, then, that as Lloyd Webber recently admitted to me in an interview for The Stage speaking about his and Cameron Mackintosh’s recent track record, “In both our cases, [our last successes] were a while ago. And one of the reasons I want to keep myself in good health is that I’d love one more hit.”

And, it seems, that he may have got his wish, with School of Rock. He got his best Broadway review from the New York Times in years from Ben Brantley, who declared:

Of course, any show that serves up somber preadolescents springing to joyous life via music of their own making is bound to push buttons, especially if the kids don’t seem to be trying too hard. Me, I melted when two little girls started singing the backup chorus from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (one of many genial nods to classics). All the children are defined as distinct individuals but without excessive shtick. My personal favorite: the petite, poker-faced Evie Dolan as Katie the bass guitarist. But it’s up to its leading man to set a tone that mixes unwashed hedonism with reassuring wholesomeness. One step too far in one direction and audiences may feel like posting an Amber Alert; oversell the sweetness, and diabetes threatens. As Dewey, [Alex] Brightman never makes the mistake of trying to upstage his young co-stars; he gets down with, and brings out the best in, them in a performance as notable for its generosity as its virtuosity.

Many other reviews were raves, too: In Time Out New York, David Cote wrote, “This is one tight, well-built show… School of Rock has absorbed the diverse lessons of Rent, Spring Awakening and Matilda and passes them on to a new generation.”

He begins his four-star notice by comparing it to the original 2003 film it is based on, and says:

We expect cute kids in uniform, a spastic Dewey and face-melting riffs – along with heart-tugging family stuff. It worked for the movie, and wow, does it work on Broadway, a double jolt of adrenaline and sugar to inspire the most helicoptered of tots to play hooky and go shred an ax. For those about to love School of Rock: We salute you.

David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter concluded:

Ultimately, what makes this show a crowdpleaser is the generosity of spirit with which it bestows the reward of cool self-realization on every last outsider and underdog – whether it’s the actual children catching an early glimpse of the adults they will become, or the eternal man-child Dewey, proudly resisting that path.

I saw an early preview of the show in New York last month, as I reported here at the time and quoted my own tweet:

And Ben Brantley seems to have agreed:

Andrew Lloyd Webber has entered his second childhood, and it turns out to be a good career move. For his latest offering, School of Rock the Musical, which opened with a deafening electric twang at the Winter Garden Theater on Sunday night, this lordly British composer has been hanging out with fifth graders. Youth, it would seem, is rejuvenating… This show, starring a bouncing Super Ball of energy named Alex Brightman, is his friskiest in decades.

Here’s where Lloyd Webber the producer then revealed his absolute masterstroke: the very next day he announced its transfer to the West End next autumn, to open at the London Palladium, in a statement that declared, “I am thrilled to announce that we are confirming a West End production of School of Rock – The Musical. We have had such a great time in the US staging the world premiere and now that we have opened on Broadway, I am delighted to be focusing on the next chapter in the show’s journey.” That includes, as well as the London production, a US national tour to be launched in the autumn of 2017, playing coast-to-cast engagements across America.

He also stated:

This is an exciting reversal for me, as I’m used to premiering shows in London before they make their way to New York. I am also delighted that audiences across America will be able to see our show so soon.  And I am thrilled that 150 schools, and counting, will be performing amateur versions of School of Rock, beginning in March with the Oakland School of the Arts.

That follows the initiative he previously announced of inviting high schools and youth performance groups in the US and Canada to apply for performance rights before it had even opened on Broadway.

In a statement about that at the time he declared:

This musical is entirely about empowering kids to rock out, so what better way to herald its arrival and celebrate its themes than to allow youth performances from coast to coast. This will allow young fans to engage with the material in a much deeper way, and we think will only heighten enthusiasm for our Broadway premiere.

It must be extremely gratifying to Lloyd Webber to finally have a show that not just New York audiences but also its critics are embracing; and I can’t wait for it to come to London now.

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