The name on everybody's lips…was not Alex Brightman. In fact, "I don't think I was on anyone's radar," he admits. "You come up with ten guys in your head, and almost nobody came up with me until I walked in the room, and they were like, 'Oh, this works!'"
Brightman is Broadway's badass school teacher, Dewey Finn, in School of Rock – The Musical, the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the 2003 film starring Jack Black. And, although he's been on Broadway before, it's his first time headlining a show of this caliber.
"I'm not doing an impression [or] a Jack Black thing," he says. "And, I never had a real chance to do what I like to do." Brightman was a former Boq in Wicked and has performed in shows such as Matilda the Musical and Big Fish, but his strong suits lie in rock 'n' roll, improv and guitar — a reason why the creative team chose him over a star to open the new musical, housed in one of Broadway's biggest and most prominent houses, the Winter Garden Theatre.
"I was under the impression that I was helping develop a show. When I got the workshop, that's all I got," he explains, talking about its previous incarnations, including the School of Rock run at NYC's Gramercy Theater. "I was completely fine with that."
See Alex Brightman and a Crew of Young Rockers Offer an Electrifying First Look at School of Rock!
Fate had bigger things in store.
In the midst of School of Rock's workshop process, exhausted and running on steam, "I was walking to the subway, feet throbbing and head down, headphones on, listening to a podcast," he says, "and my agent called. He's like, 'How's it all going? You're moving to the Gramercy next week. How are you doing?' And, I was like, 'I don't think I've ever been this tired in my entire life. I have never worked this hard. We just did a run, and I am about to pass out for 48 hours straight before we get back into rehearsal.' And he goes, 'Well, before you do that, I have something that might make it harder to go to sleep… You're going to be doing the role on Broadway.'
"The first thing I did was make sure I knew where I was because I wanted to remember where I was when I got the phone call. I don't know why that came to me — it was never a plan — but for some reason in my head I was like, 'It's important to look around right now and see where I am.' I was on 23rd and 7th, and I'll never forget that. I can see it. It was one of those moments your brain just sort of records all of a sudden… I had a small chat with my agent about how this has been an amazing experience anyway, and so the fact that they're deciding to take a chance on somebody who nobody knows, essentially… I went down into the subway, and I just kind of rode the subway in silence — with a huge, goofy smile on my face."
The tears came when he told his parents, and he said his girlfriend nearly fainted when she heard the news. But, the gravitas of the situation hit hard when he stood across from the Winter Garden.
"I was just watching people walk by — completely anonymous, just standing there — and I was bawling just watching people walk by, and I [thought], 'Hundreds, maybe thousands — I don't know — of people auditioned for this, and there's one person in the entire world who's going to do it, and it's me.'"
Since it became official, though, Brightman had to get to work — not only upping his guitar game (with lessons from Replay Music Studios' Dan Kleederman), but also upping his weight.
"I lose about 1-2 lbs. a night doing the show from all the running around and the jumping and the lifting kids and getting up and down off the floor," Brightman says. "It's a marathon. With that being said, there are lines in the script that are like, 'You don't think I know what it's like to be fat and lazy?'" Although Brightman was never heavy, he admits, "I've never been 'fit.' … I asked [director] Laurence [Connor], 'Should I be getting bigger or should I be staying the same?' He said, 'As you are right now — you are wonderfully out of shape.'
"This sounds like a joke, but I truly try to look in the mirror a little less. It's just one of those things where you're like, 'Aw, I don't look great!' And then you walk past windows and you're like, 'Who's that chubby…? Oh, it's me…' But you keep remembering what you're doing it for, and it's kind of like the easiest way to get back to it."
Plus, he's packing on the pounds for Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Phantom of the Opera has been running on Broadway since 1988 and is now the longest-running show in history.
"He is the man!" says Brightman. "He came up to give me a note one day, and he was like, 'Excuse me, Alex?' And, I said, 'What's up, homie?' And, he was like, 'I believe that's the first time I've ever been called homie.' I'm happy to have been the one to do it."
When the news was announced that Brightman would do the role on Broadway, his phone froze multiple times that day. He was overwhelmed from the congratulatory messages and posts on social media, but he insists that none of it would have been possible without the help of his peers.
"I like to use the phrase 'We did it' because everything [prior] to that announcement, I have never once done alone," he says. "I think that me doing this, especially for my generation of musical theatre performers that I'm a part of, it makes me feel proud because they're also involved with me getting this… It's 'We did it'; it's not 'I did it.' This is a big win for everybody."
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)