As the final bell sounded Dec. 6 for the opening of School of Rock at the Winter Garden, its star, Alex Brightman, excitedly shouted out one last surprise into the mic: "Ladies and gentlemen, up-and-coming composer Andrew Lloyd Webber!"
And with that, the 67-year-old author of Broadway's longest-running show (The Phantom of the Opera) did his slow, tentative church-mouse shuffle to the center of the stage, looking very much the timid antithesis of a man who had just knocked a vigorous rock 'n' roll score out of the park and brought some 1,500 first-nighters to their feet cheering.
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He used the occasion democratically, not to speechify but to bring to the stage his collaborators d'jour — lyricist Glenn Slater (Love Never Dies), book writer Julian Fellowes (Mary Poppins, "Downton Abbey") and director Laurence Connor (Les Misérables).
After that, it was off to the after-party at — where else? — The Hard Rock Café, where Lord Lloyd Webber attentively played to the TV cameras, skipped the print and then made a quick getaway for an intimate opening-night bash at The Rainbow Room. Rather than a radical change of pace, School of Rock marks a return to form — to his musical roots of '70s pop rock. The composer started out in rock 44 years ago with Jesus Christ Superstar at the Mark Hellinger, a half-block from the Winter Garden, and soon got waylaid and rerouted to great success by the sweeps and swells of Puccini.
Now, he's back on that musical track and playing to his youngest market ever, holding the rock beat to the show's last 30 seconds when he backslides into Mozart's The Magic Flute. The Winter Garden, which he once kitty-littered, is now kiddie-littered.
The "School of Rock" (as the band is called in the 2003 film and this musical adaptation) is a pack of preteen rockers — and a cunning ploy for ALW. That age group, Lord knows, will eventually grow into Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.
The pint-sized students in this elementary School of Rock are the show's secret ingredient — every bit as eye-grabbing and spectacular as Phantom's chandelier.
And, yes, as Lord Lloyd Webber swears in the pre-show voiceover, they all do play their own instruments. If that weren't impressive enough, they also turn in distinct, highly individualized characterizations and get loads of laughs while doing it.
"The kids were wonderful to work with, so talented all of them," declared director Connor. "We have 14, plus four swings, and they range in ages from 10 to probably 12 or 13. Every night, audiences are just mesmerized watching them work."
Just as easy to work with, he added, was the lord himself. "Andrew couldn't have been more accommodating or accessible. Whenever you wanted to run something by him, he was there to hear it and offer his ideas. He's a wonderful collaborator."
"Andrew and I wrote a good dozen songs for the show, in addition to the three that were from the film," he said. "I think possibly the one we're both proudest of is 'Stick It to the Man,' which is both a great rock song and a great theatrical moment."
Not counting the Mozart ditty ("Queen of the Night") and the big hit from an earlier show this season ("Amazing Grace," the hymn that inspired the recent Broadway musical starring Josh Young), the songs Lord Lloyd Webber left standing from the film were "Math Is a Wonderful Thing," "In the End of Time" and the title tune.
Jack Black and Mike Wise, who starred in the movie as failed rockers retreating into academia, had a hand in writing these songs, and it was deemed advisable to keep them in. "There's a whole generation of kids who grew up watching this movie," Slater pointed out, "and we knew we had to hang on to the big moments."
Wise also wrote the original screenplay for "School of Rock" and custom-fitted the best-friend character to himself so he could play it on the screen. Spencer Moses does the role in the musical and got to meet its creator a couple of weeks ago.
"It was a real trip meeting Mike — super-nice guy, really cool and very approachable," he said. "He talked about how well the movie turned into a musical."
Alex Brightman (utterly no kin to the ex-Mrs. Lloyd Webber, Sarah Brightman) was also cast to physically suggest the film original. "When I first saw 'School of Rock,' I remember thinking, 'This is the kind of movie I would want to be in. Who is that guy?'" said Brightman. "I'd seen Jack Black before, of course — 'High Fidelity' and a few others — but I knew him as a singer-songwriter, not as an actor. Ever since 'School of Rock,' I've been — still am — a huge fan of his. His brand of comedy jives so well with mine."
Every once in a while, Brightman will slip in a Jack Black-ism, but he stays his own man, too. "It would be crazy to come to a fork in the road and not try to take both roads," he said. "After all, Jack Black created a role that I am now trying to do justice to and honor. All I'm trying to do is my own thing and, at the same time, tip my hat to him.
"It's completely a dream role and not one that I sought out. It wasn't one where I said, 'Y'know what I want to do? I want to do School of Rock.' I actually didn't think it would be a great idea because it's a near-perfect movie. But after doing the work and rehearsing it and collaborating, I find out that actually it's a perfect adaptation. What the movie can't do is sing. You can't sing the whole time. This show can."
His character's love-interest is supplied by Sierra Boggess. Initially, Broadway's Little Mermaid proves a pretty cold fish, playing Brightman's school-principal boss very starchy and officious, but, along the way, she catches some Cusack kookiness from the movie. "I finally had to stop watching it because Joan Cusack is one of the greatest actresses, and I didn't want to steal all of her stuff," Boggess explained. "This character is quite different from the kind I usually play. I like the journey she gets to go on here."
The thing that suddenly brings the character alive to Brightman (and the audience) is that news that she is secretly a Stevie Nicks fan. And guess who was sitting in the front row on opening night? "That was really cool, and to meet Stevie afterward was just wonderful," said Boggess. "I said, 'On behalf of my character, I thank you for inspiring me.'"