‘A yearning for simpler times, simpler narratives and endless familiarity’: Robert Reid reviews Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock
The apotheosis of the simplest ideas.
If we consider its ritual aspects, then School of Rock might be best described as call and response. It immediately establishes a Pavlovian relationship with its audience and holds their attention by confirming their expectations: the easiest jokes, the most reassuring assumptions, the broadest stereotypes.
They’re jokes everybody can enjoy, provided everybody is white, straight and not offended by cartoon representations of anything that isn’t the exhausted archetype of the rebellious white man. Teachers are always stuck up. Kids are always ignored. Rules are meant to be broken. Stick it to the man… says The Right Honourable The Lord Lloyd-Webber, Kt., Baron of Sydmonton and his team.
I haven’t seen the movie, but even so the story, its progress and eventual resolution are obvious from the first few character interactions. Dewey Finn (Brent Hill) is a free spirit, an overweight, jovial (jolly but with a hint of good humoured, lazy cynicism), overgrown man-child who gets kicked out of his rock band and has to pretend to be a school teacher at an expensive private school in order to pay his share of the rent. Here he teaches the uptight kids how to “rock”, which largely involves a mixture of believing in themselves and the aforementioned sticking it to the man, while he teaches the stuck-up faculty to relax and wins the heart of the strict school principal (Amy Lehpamer).
I’ve seen that story a million times. Have you seen Bad Teacher? Or Man Down? Or Easy A? Or Glee? Or Dead Poets Society? Or Bad Education? Or Billy Madison? Or Mr Holland’s Opus? Then you’ve seen School of Rock. The songs better be good.
I’m constantly reminded of Kindergarten Cop. Dramaturgically, it’s as close a model as any, and the characters of the children are no less stereotypical. There is, of course, a nerdy uptight character who is a stickler for the rules. Of course, this character is a girl. Finn calls her “Hermione” at one point, a moment of intertextual parody that calls our attention to the relative sameness of this stock character. The audience laughed, more from recognition than approval.
There’s also a quiet child who is shy and just needs to be brought out of her shell. A sullen, rebellious one who has a rough home life and just needs somebody to give him a chance. Sadly, I find I’m not shocked to also find the queer kid who reads Vogue, wants to be a designer and is the butt of many of the jokes. Ugh. School of Rock? School of Blech.
Nothing is surprising: each moment becomes more predictable than the last. This whole experience is about triggering moments of recognition, resolving in the affirmative any suspense that might offer surprise. This is for an audience that wants its assumptions confirmed, an audience that wants to know that the sun will rise again tomorrow and that at the end of the news there will be weather. School of Rock delivers this with a shovel.
A verticality in the design makes confident and generous use of the fly towers. Flats fly in and out, gliding smoothly across the stage, reconfiguring it from rock gig to our hero’s bedroom to various configurations of the school. The kids are all in uniforms. The only real character is Finn who is, at best, a pale imitation of Jack Black in the original role.
Again, I haven’t seen the original, but the performance in this musical screams “vehicle for Jack Black”, and I wonder how rewarding this can be for the performer. But then again, this is not a work about new ideas or interpretations or surprise. This is about a kind of nostalgia: a yearning for simpler times, simpler narratives, endless familiarity. Let there be no deviations, let there be no surprises.
As Mr Schneebly, the identity Finn assumes to take this job from his flatmate, the real Mr Schneebly, Finn dispenses with the kids’ lessons. Instead, every day is band practice day. This class is now competing in the Battle of the Bands, the same competition Finn’s old band is competing in. In the blink of an eye, possibly during a key change, the narrative takes a tremendous and unexplained leap from Finn planning to sleep at the desk (and how was that supposed to work out?) to using the kids to live out his revenge fantasy of winning the competition with the school band.
I have trouble suspending my disbelief. What is Finn supposed to be really teaching? He’s not even the band teacher. He discovers that the kids can play instruments when he turns up late to find that the principal is taking his class for music… so what was he supposed to be teaching? Why is no one checking up on this class room that has suddenly become the noisiest room in the building? Where are the permission slips for these children to leave school property to compete in the qualifying rounds of the battle? Why has the real Schneebly not followed up with the school to find out what happened to his job?
The kids are adorable and the best part of the evening. The energy of their collective dance numbers, simple jumping up and down and head banging, lends a sense of life, if not actual passion, to the choreography. The show flickers into life when the kids are given their instruments during the “You’re in the Band” number. The song itself is fairly uninspiring, but the kids can really play. Both the lead guitar and bassist can thrash those axes and, when the drummer gets sticks in his hands and behind the skins, they create moments of real release. The kids let it all go and are simply playing the rock. The moments feel real. And fun.
It’s hard not to compare this multi-million dollar spectacle with Pre-Historic by Elbow Room, (which featured Zachary Pidd, an ensemble member of this show). In Pre-Historic, four actors play a band, pick up real instruments and really play too; but Pre-Historic tells a story with characters that are fully rounded, and with a playwright’s attention to drama. School of Rock feels like a pastiche of rock’n’roll rebellion, reduced to the saccharine structures of a Hollywood romcom.
The few women characters are all distressingly the same: uptight, bitchy and nerdy. They include the love interest at the school, the girlfriend of Finn’s flat mate. Even the bossy girl student who becomes the manager is the character who demands they do their lessons and thinks that all the rock and roll-y fun is a waste of time. Until she’s made the symbolic boss. Is the underlying assumption here that girls are killjoys?
At the beginning, before the lights go do and the show starts, there is an announcement. It enjoins us to turn off our mobile phones and then offers to answer the question everyone always asks… Yes, the kids do play their own instruments. No Acknowledgement of Country or respect to Elders, I notice. Just on with the show.
I can get on board with entertainment that is just being entertainment. I don’t have a problem with theatre that is purely about joy. I’m not sure, however, that lazily ticking boxes that have historically represented “everybody” having a good time cuts it. Fun is only fun when everybody’s having fun.
School of Rock, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyricist, Glenn Slater. Book, Julian Fellowes. Director, Laurence Connor. Choreographer, JoAnn M Hunter. Scenic and Costume Design, Anna Louizos. Lighting Design, Natasha Katz. Performed by, Brent Hill, Amy Lehpamer, John O’Hara, Nadia Komazec, Joe Kosky, Bianca Baykara, Matt Crowley, James Cutler, Ellis Dolan, Alex Hyne, Andrew Kroenert, Bree Langridge, Jenni Little, Markesha Mc Coy, Zachary Pidd, Michaela Powell, Jack Van Staveren, Sophie Weiss, Stephen Wheat. Child Cast (on the night I saw) Kempton Maloney, Orlando Schwerdt, Samantha Zhang, Jayden Tatasciore, Lenny Thomas, Zac El-Alo, Riya Mandrawa, Oscar Mulchay, Ava Rose Houben Carter, Maya Corbett, Ava McInnes, Chihana Perera. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until February 3. Also playing Sydney’s Capitol Theatre Theatre from November 2019 and Brisbane’s QPAC from July 2019. Bookings
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