School of Rock (West End Production, soft-opener)

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We accidentally saw some kind of benefit performance of School of Rock, having simply booked regular preview tickets. Michael Caine was there, and Fergie (actual Duchess, not funkstress), and so too were the men (well, maybe we’ll just go with ‘Tory peers’) responsible for the show: Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey) and the mystery cat himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was thus unexpectedly confronted with the very face of the beast.

When I was little and stupid, as little people often are (the worshipful ‘I have an insight into childhood!’ neo-Victorian tone of many very good writers aside—people are often bloody awful, why not small people?), I fucking loved Webber. The only thing I can say in my own defence is that I always, always hated Cats. But I loved JCSS; lush, camp Phantom—I read the book it was based on; I even thought Evita made complex political points, god help me. When you are the sort of person who cruel nature has predestined to Like Musicals and you’re exposed to very few of them, the pumpkin spice latte of the genre will more than content you.

No, let’s be fair: I still like Webber. This is either because I am the sort of philistine who also thinks the schmaltzier the Romantic composer, the better (and who thinks Queen may be the greatest band-qua-band of all time), or because I was weaned on him from a young age. I’m not sure the two things are easily separated. The fact remains that while I haven’t listened to Phantom for some years, and was never ‘in the fandom’ as it were, I am nonetheless almost certain I could sing the entirety of Phantom right now. Don’t worry, I won’t, this is a terrace house and our neighbours have done nothing to deserve that.

I even liked Webber’s seeming perpetual bafflement in the idiot reality show I watched a season of, which turned the already-torturous casting process into a farcical quest to find out which girl best embodied the true spirit of the nothing part of Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. For some reason or other, can’t think why, I’ve recently come to find reality shows featuring conservative political figures deeply depressing and repulsive, so it’s a no from me on any more of that, ever.

Looking at what my sister kept describing as Webber’s ‘horrible wizened lizard face’, because she’s a bitch (but a bitch with eyes), I knew not what to feel. With erstwhile collaborator Tim Rice, ALW forms a substantial part of my cultural landscape. They sunk deep roots into me at a time when I knew no other West End caliber theatre at all. I still like a lot of ALW’s earlier work, but I distrust my own liking. Now I consider him the bourgeois, conservative hack he’s become, and probably to an extent always was. I don’t think it’s just that I’ve gotten older: I think Webber has matured into the worst part of himself.

I have a strained, awkward relationship with this old friend, who, since about eighteen, has grown into her worst qualities. These were always there, but she used to be a pretty good person. There once was this real opportunity for her to grow into someone I can’t quite imagine now, from where I’m standing. Different from me, different from who she became—a full realization of a girl now lost. I can’t see most of the things she used to be in her anymore, though I’m sure if she’d kept a journal during those years or something, we’d have some remnant of her still. Essentially, Webber’s like that, with the work of his good period standing in for those hypothetical journals.

ALW came on stage, rambled about the benefit and assured us that the children all played instruments. People had been asking about that, he told us, but indeed, his merry band of ragamuffins did make all their own noises! Presumably he said this for my benefit, and that of everyone in the audience who intended to write about the show afterwards (this charity gig, to be matter of fact rather than cynical, must have doubled as PR—‘oh look, Fergie tweeted about that hot new musical’). With that, my disappointing old flame slunk off to a seat just behind the prime circle, which was currently filled with rich donors. He watched his own show, which he must have seen fifty times at least between its New York incarnation and this new one. How can he bear it? Practice, I suppose. It’s very possible that ALW is on a spectrum with Gaiman and Dickens and other artists who have been too fucking famous in their own lifetimes: there are several ways to react, but these positions as National Treasures, living members of a Pantheon (in a pop-culture version of the French sense of the term), exert(ed) a personality and art-warping weight on them all.

Webber was right to highlight the children: his Gypsy band was the consistent highlight of the show. We sat next to two proud mothers who’ve been more often even than they were given comp tickers for. My sister struck up a conversation with them about child acting regs in the UK. We learned that it’s hard for the kids to speak in American accents, except for the one native speaker and the girl who attends an American school in Richmond, but the moms say their kids love being in this show, would suspend time if they could in order to ward off puberty and stay in it forever. I believe these moms, to the extent you can know that kind of thing: they seem sensible, and on stage the kids seem delighted in one another’s company, energetic and flushed with praise for their hard work. William Morris contended that people like work, when their circumstances aren’t exploitative and awful—that it can easily be a pleasure unto itself. He was probably right.

The show is most appealing when these kids are on. Before they arrive on the scene, it drags, and when they’re off-stage much of the energy goes with them. My partner pointed out that it’s tough to adapt School of Rock, which is simple and lovely in its original form, without losing some of its charm, and I don’t think she’s wrong. It’s good to see diversity in this cast, though. However, just to note, it is bloody always gay male parents, isn’t it? At this rate the first lesbian parent I’m going to see is myself in a few years.

The venue, the New London Theatre, exists to make the National look less hideous. It’s comfortable, and I suppose it suits some productions (because god knows I’ve been thrown by ‘Book of Mormon in an art-deco palace’), but it has that soul-deep commitment to ugliness Britain used to be capable of back when it could still muster up commitment to anything in particular. I think this might have been its last gasp, actually. My partner dutifully protests that she likes the National. My stage manager sister amends that she too likes the National: its handsome lighting rig, its huge budget. As far as its face goes, well.

The one real complaint to make about the NLT as a production space rather than as an aesthetic experience is that the show’s sound mixing was way off. This is probably an issue with the architecture of the building, which was perhaps not meant to handle a musical like this (thank fuck they didn’t put Hamilton in here). The speakers were all positioned down from us, so the tech team was fighting a losing battle. The upshot is, best-in-the-business techies gave me something that, in the cheap seats, often sounded like shit. I couldn’t hear a lot of the lyrics. I’m sure it was gold for the circle, but if your whole audience isn’t baseline-served at a West End musical, that’s really not acceptable.

Part of that ‘sounding like shit’ wasn’t really down to the sound system. It certainly wasn’t down to the kids, who played songs the film had given the musical very, very well. But where new songs were required, either lyricist Julian Fellowes phoned it in or he just wasn’t up to scratch. I winced in anticipation of some of the crapper rhymes, and, inexorably, they came: exactly what you’d expected. A small schoolchild sings “I needed respect/I needed a chance/And only you would listen/I couldn’t connect”. ‘I couldn’t connect’, like we’re in a naff therapy session. Things generally should be funnier than they are, and almost every song is musically and lyrically limp (not to mention repetitious). You could swap “If Only You Would Listen” into about eight other musicals and no one would notice.

The weirdest thing about School of Rock is, it’s a musical about rock by the guy who brought vast audiences the rock musical and who remains strongly associated with that genre, and the songs by and large do not rock for shit. The protagonist’s boss, a lapsed rock chick, laments her lost sense of self and lapsed love affair with music in a meebly trad-musical number. We have only just been told this bitch would straight die for Stevie Nicks, and somehow, somehow, I am not listening to a wailing, face-melting, Fleetwoodish, raging, nostalgic, bitter belter? I got more musical wham out of that Stevie Nicks Fajita Roundup skit. This musical ought to have been a sampler of the different things rock can be and do, but every song new feels perfunctory. There is one chord unique to this musical rather than the film that lingers with me a week on—the notes that go with the kids’ “stick it to the man” chant. However it’s awkwardly reminiscent of a chord Pink used in her 2008 single “So what?” (“I’m gonna get in trouble, I’m gonna start a fight!”), which seriously predates ALW’s adaptation. My sister points out this too is a musical quotation, but the point remains: the one memorable bit of music in this whole shebang isn’t even Webber’s. The father of rock opera didn’t turn out one.

It’s pretty enjoyable, though that’s largely down to the kids’ work and not Webber’s. (I’m remembering Hamlet on child theatrical troupes as gimmick, though.) What can I say? After a string of flops (Phantom II, anyone?), Webber, who self-invests like he’s Trump, turned out something safe. Relentlessly safe. And I’m sure it’s a tidy money-maker, and again, it’s not bad. (I can’t help comparing this to the Groundhog Day musical, which was competently if not exquisitely adapted by the original script writer and elegantly staged. It didn’t add much to the film really, and I can’t say the songs have stayed with me, but it was like a slicker, more careful version of what this was trying to do. It too didn’t have good enough music, but I felt it had more of an excuse.)

School of Rock is, however, structurally awkward in a way I think will sit in the backs of the audience’s brains. The overall ideology of this play about rock as rebellion is controlled and conciliatory. We’re told the kids are over-scheduled, and at the end of the musical the protagonist’s rock lessens become one more fucking thing they have to do while still poised for hygienic lives of unfaltering achievement, adding to their burdens while lessening them. They have Free Expression Hour, yay!! It’s especially ironic that it’s Tory Peer ALW talking to you about freedom and rebellion. In a hyper-establishment West End musical. K.

And then there are the people the band cannot include. One wonders, as in the film, about the kids assigned security detail, or designing costumes no one ends up using (though that gay or playing-gay kid is a fucking star—he was a true delight). It’s odd that in the musical the discovery of the key singing talent was left until 36 hours before the final competition. It just feels like the protagonist literally has not spoken to this student all month after his initial attempt at outreach. Summer, the bossy Hermione Granger of the class, is ‘part of the band’: one of ours. We root for her. Yet the two adult women she’s like either:

  1. need to distance themselves from their ambition and/or find it incompatible with living a personally fulfilling life (the principal), or
  2. are (and this is the protagonist’s roommate’s girlfriend) uppity, fun-spoiling bitches who want like, paid rent, ever, or for their boyfriend’s weird and mean high school band mate not to live with them in their apartment she partly pays for anymore, now that they’re all in their mid-thirties, or for children not to taught by a dodgy rando with no license. You know, crazy shit like that. Maaaaaan what a drag.

So how can we celebrate Summer when her eventual fate, despite her reasonable concerns and her hard, helpful work, is to be rendered ridiculous, naggy instead of powerful. Summer says some shoehorned thing about equal pay, and you can feel the musical working to earn its credibility here. But in the wake of Trump’s election, the protagonist’s claim that Summer will be the first female president of the United States is hollow and painful. Also terrifying—what is that, 40 years to wait? Shit, at this point I hope there still is an America in 40 years.

Obviously the movie did some of these objectionable things too, but small script changes in the adaptation process have actually altered the undergirding of the musical and rendered its ideology creepier. Seemingly insignificant, surface-level changes can have that kind of deep-structure effect! One might say, ‘surely the original film’s promise of rebellion was reconciliatory bullshit, because how can a major motion picture, a mass media product made by the forces of capitalism working on a grand scale, ever say anything interesting about rebellion against convention?’ Well, indeed, but I’m more Benjamin than Adorno in this as in everything, and thus I have more time for the potentialities of mass culture. Adorno doesn’t significantly account for transformative reception and a polyvocal, multi-authorial text. Bakhtin done told you this, son! Plus, I see a lot of value in Olga Goriunova’s Autonomist Marxist-inspired ‘breaks’ formation, which stresses the possibility and importance of micro-fissures: small moments of rupture in capitalist hegemonies, cracks that let light in and allow minds trapped in late capitalism’s material and intellectual death-grip to imagine radically other futurities. I think mass culture products are capable of letting light in, sometimes.

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