'School of Rock': How composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has changed musical theater

A musical adaptation of the 2003 comedy 'School' recently opened on Broadway. The music for 'School' is composed by Webber, who is behind some of the biggest hits in musical theater.

Timmy Blupe/The O and M Co./AP
Alex Brightman (center) appears during a performance of 'School of Rock' in New York.

“School of Rock,” a musical based on the hit 2003 Jack Black movie and featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has opened on Broadway. 

“School” tells the story of musician Dewey Finn, who takes a job as a substitute teacher at a private school and gets his students excited about rock ‘n’ roll. 

The show stars Alex Brightman as Dewey as well as “The Phantom of the Opera” actress Sierra Boggess as uptight principal Rosalie and Brandon Niederauer, Jared Parker, Isabella Russo, and Bobbi MacKenzie, among others, as Dewey’s students. 

So far, the musical itself, which opened on Dec. 6, has received mixed reviews but almost all critics have praised the younger members of the cast, many of whom play their own instruments in the show.

When the show was announced, the fact that “School” was being adapted for Broadway wasn’t all that surprising – it’s far from the first critically well-received hit to come to the Great White Way. But one of the aspects that got the most attention was the involvement of Webber, who composed the music for the show. (Another famous name is on the script – “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes penned the adaptation.)

Webber is best known for his hits such as “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Cats,” and “Evita.” It could be said that the composer hasn’t scored a big hit in some time – such efforts as the 2010 West End “Phantom” sequel “Love Never Dies,” which never came to Broadway; 2005’s “The Woman in White”; and 2004’s “Bombay Dreams” all fizzled. 

But Webber had an astonishing early run. His 1970s musicals “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Evita,” and “Cats” all became hits and “Phantom” was the biggest of all. It’s still running on Broadway, becoming the longest-running show there in history. Until a few years ago, it was also the highest-grossing Broadway musical of all time, though the Disney show “The Lion King” has now surpassed it.

How is the influence of Webber’s shows still being felt today? “Superstar” arrived as Broadway musicals based more in the rock genre were gaining popularity. Such shows as “Superstar,” “Hair,” and “Grease” all added a more modern feel to Broadway musicals and could be said to have paved the way for more current hits like “Spring Awakening” and the current smash “Hamilton,” which incorporates hip-hop sounds, among many other genres. 

In some ways, Webber’s shows also cemented a certain earnestness and over-the-top aura that many still associate with Broadway musicals. Some critics and theatergoers decry, for example, the melodramatic plot of “Phantom” and over-the-top songs. Some of Webber’s shows established these qualities as the first characteristics people think of when they think of Broadway musicals.

In addition, "Phantom" was an important component of the 1980s popularity of the mega-musical. These productions, which include "Phantom," "Les Misérables," and "Miss Saigon" (which opened on Broadway in 1991), are shows that all boast many special effects and often elaborate sets. These shows can become staples of Broadway, running for many years. With crowd-pleasers like "Phantom" and "Les Mis," the familiar titles may attract Broadway visitors unfamiliar with other productions and audience members can be lured in with the promise of spectacle. 

Whether “School” becomes a hit or disappears quickly, Webber and his legacy will remain an important part of modern theater culture.

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