"It's something of a change," says Lord Julian Fellowes with a hearty laugh. The British conservative member of the House of Lords was referring to his latest project, the new musical School of Rock which opened Dec. 6 at the Winter Garden Theatre.
The contemporary rock musical marks a great departure from Lord Fellowes' other recent work, as the creator, writer and executive producer of the hit TV series "Downton Abbey," which chronicles a wealthy English family's life in the early 1900s. Unlike School of Rock's hero, Dewey Finn, a slobby unemployed aspiring musician, "Downton"'s Crawley family dresses formally for each meal and adheres to the strictest rules of social conduct.
School of Rock, based on the movie of the same name, follows Finn as he poses as a substitute grade-school teacher and recruits his unexpectedly talented students to form a band so he can compete for the Battle of the Bands cash prize. Finn's story is set to a pulsing rock score, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
But the cultural shift isn't that unusual for Fellowes, whose career has been defined by his versatility. After acting in the films "Jayne Eyre" and "Tomorrow Never Dies," he wrote the screenplay for the murder mystery "Gosford Park." His writing didn't stop with films; he has also penned the novels "Snobs" and "Past Imperfect" and the BBC children's dramas "Little St. Nicholas," "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "The Prince and the Pauper." In 2006, he made his Broadway writing debut with Disney's Mary Poppins.
Fellowes' involvement with School of Rock began when Webber invited him to join the project. A longtime fan of the Tony Award winner's musicals, Fellowes said that Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat were integral parts of his late teens.
Fellowes described rock and roll as an integral part of his adolescence, so his fondness for Superstar is no surprise. He was a big fan of Elvis Presely and traveled to see the Beatles play in Hammersmith and the Rolling Stones in Brighton. "It wasn't enough to hear their records," he says. "I wanted to see them live."
"I was 13 in 1962. I was 20 in 1969," he says. "That whole period — those were the years of my growing up. It was a time of music rebellion, change. The younger generation, the teenagers, redefining themselves and who they were and what they wanted. Really, the language of that definition was entirely music. We were a rock generation. We were obsessive. We used to hang around record shops, and there were these booths you would play the records in."
Fellowes' appreciation of rock music has continued into adulthood. When he received the call from Webber about working on the musical, he immediately said yes, having seen and loved the movie. His involvement in the production did surprise some theatregoers who associate him strongly with the prim "Downton Abbey," and the audience at the performance this reporter attended expressed surprise when Finn calls his students "douchebags" during the show.
"I was searching for some word of abuse that would be funny," Fellowes reveals, laughing. "That seemed appropriate. [The show is] me with a different head on, really. Mind you, although 'douchebag' is perhaps sailing slightly close to the wind, I do think the show is really charming."
Fellowes' streak of defiance, which may be hidden to some due to his trademark formal wear ("I always wear a tie," he says), is revealed in the musical when Finn and the children perform a spirited anthem of rebellion titled "Stick It To the Man."
As he recalled his own adolescence, Fellowes shared the memory of his own wake-up call. "I remember very, very well when I was about 12 or 13 talking to a teacher in school and suddenly realizing that he was stupider than I was. It was such a revelation because up to that point, I'd always sort of assumed that adults know more than kids do: Probably when an adult gives an order he's got a reason for it and so on. In that moment the scales fell from my eyes and I realized that I was having to take orders from and be instructed by a man who was stupider than I was."
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"Of course, part of life is dealing with that," he continues. "We all have to work for people who are stupider than we are, take orders from people who are stupider than we are, and somehow you must find a way of doing it, putting it somewhere in your head that doesn't disable you so you can get on with your life and not let it prevent you from doing so. But it's hard. I think that's why 'Stick It To the Man' has such an answer and call in all of us. We'd all love to stick it to the man right now."
That rebellious spirit has also been revealed in "Downton," which will begin its sixth and final season on PBS's Masterpiece Jan 3. 2016. The show's success, which Fellowes reveals was "a great adventure" with which he is "terribly pleased," has earned both Golden Globe and Emmy Awards. But, he said, "It's time [to end the show.] It's right to go when people are still sorry to see the back of you."
With "Downton" coming to an end, Fellowes has many new projects in the works, including a few more musicals. But, he admitted, he isn't able to get a ticket to Hamilton, one of the hottest shows of the season. "I'm dying to see it," he says. "I couldn't get a ticket! Is it great? Have you seen it?"
The idea of Fellowes, in suit and tie, watching the hip-hop and rap-filled musical no longer seems surprising. In fact, when asked if he and Webber wrote School of Rock while decked out in black leather and KISS-inspired makeup, he replied, without pausing, "Oh, yes. You must have been spying!"