A disreputable charmer brings the joy of music to a staid community while stirring up romance with an uptight lady: If the plot of School of Rock sounds like a great musical, that’s because it is. It’s The Music Man. But School of Rock, however much it borrows the shape of Meredith Willson’s 1957 classic, has a different agenda, one that’s arguably more timely and certainly less poetic. Its Harold Hill figure, called Dewey Finn, has real instead of imaginary instruments to offer, and the music he’s evangelizing isn’t Sousa but the Stones. Nonconformity replaces community as the theme; the key title in the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater (with a few songs lifted from the hit 2003 movie) is called “Stick It to the Man.” Trouble, we are told, isn’t something music will prevent but something it will enhance: “Wreck your room and rip your jeans / and show ’em what rebellion means.”
If you are willing to overlook trite sentiments like that, School of Rock, which opened tonight at the Winter Garden and will likely run a long time there, has a fair amount to offer: a terrifically warm central performance by Alex Brightman; a clean, swift staging by Laurence Connor; and, for those who like it, temporary deafness. The big gimmick is of course the kids. Dewey winds up stealing from his roommate a substitute teaching gig at a prestigious prep school, which in material like this (the book, strangely, is by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) inevitably means a place of grim, overscheduled automatons with horrible parents. (They are either radically over- or under-involved; even the gay dads lifted wholesale from Modern Family ignore their adorable daughter’s feelings.) Not to worry: Dewey one by one lifts the pall of lockstep ambition off each ten-year-old in his class, and if he teaches them no math or history, he does get them riffing on “Satisfaction.” Eventually his success in organizing them into a band of rebels comes into conflict with the school’s need to placate the Harvard-hungry parents, and the conflict reaches a climax at an epic Battle of the Bands. Is it a spoiler to mention that the librarianish principal, Rosalie Mullins, finds her inner Stevie Nicks just in time to rock out in the finale and reciprocate Dewey’s affections? If it is, you haven’t been paying attention to musicals for the last 100 years.
The kids are terrific: They sing very well, are not overly adorable, and (as a pre-show announcement makes sure to clarify, because it isn’t always clear in the din) play their own instruments. That each has a predictable arc and a backstory full of clichés (one actually sings “Amazing Grace”) does little to diminish the aw factor as music transforms them in the ways they need transforming: The tense guitarist loosens up, the shy vocalist grabs the spotlight, the hyper-competent brainiac finds something to do that’s worthy of her competence. (I was less enamored of the proto-gay-boy’s emergence as a combination of Edith Head and Carson Kressley.) Their scenes with Dewey, though completely pro forma and signboarded like crazy, unwind fast and jokey, mostly thanks to Brightman, who, closely following Jack Black in the movie, has a thousand ways of making inappropriateness cute. Many of his lines appear to be ad libs — they’re not in the script — but when Fellowes hands him a good one (“I am so sick and tired of being the guy everyone comes to for the money I owe them”) he knows how to sell that too. What neither he nor any of the other adults, including Sierra Boggess, ill- and under-used as Mullins, can do is turn salesmanship into character: This is not that kind of musical. Even if it were, Fellowes’s book doesn’t allow it, offering no psychology, only traits.
It’s the music that’s supposed to take up the slack in cases like this. When the story is rote or light or cartoonish, song can fill in color, suggest ambiguity, connect the characters’ surface concerns to the deepest feelings of the audience. That’s the way the best musical comedies work, from Guys and Dolls to Hairspray. But School of Rock, like many rock musicals, has a problem availing itself of the genre’s full power, because reasonably authentic rock of the type imitated here, circa 1975, has such a limited vocabulary. Its predominant trait — rhythm — can certainly help propel action but the classic garage harmonizations undermine the illusion of theatrical depth. So does the thin instrumentation. (School of Rock’s pit band, which is not in the pit but squirreled away somewhere, has only seven players, even though the minimum at the Winter Garden is usually 18.) Lloyd Webber is not, in any case, a real rock composer; he’s a magpie who dips into that well when suitable (as in Jesus Christ Superstar) and has virtually no voice of his own. Here he grabs whatever tropes seem handy, from power to glitter to punk, garbling our understanding of Dewey’s inner soundscape. For the teachers he gives us dry quadrilles and a triumphal school anthem more suitable to Aida; Mullins literally sings the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, in an arrangement (by Lloyd Webber) that makes it sound like Switched-On Mozart. The most successful songs are those that split the difference, like Mullins’s 11-o’clock ballad “Where Did the Rock Go?” — which you could imagine Bonnie Raitt singing — and the theatrically conceived “You’re in the Band,” in which Dewey first turns his charges into little Jaggers.
Anyway, Lloyd Webber isn’t the problem. Nor is Glenn Slater, whose lyrics, when they can be heard, are clean and on point. The problem is what the point is, and that falls once again on Fellowes, who has not resolved, but rather exposed, the confusions latent in the material. If Dewey represents the anarchic spirit of rock, and we are meant to cheer when he gets the kids to share that spirit, do we suddenly not notice that he’s, well, a loser? “No rock star ever won anything,” he points out, inanely. Looked at squarely, this is a show about a poseur, not just liberating but undermining everyone around him. (The musical’s villain is his roommate’s girlfriend, who is punished for the crime of wanting him to pay his rent by being turned into a hideous nightmare bitch.) When the bossy girl, in a song called “Time to Play,” sings a well-turned Slater couplet meant to suggest the excitement of rock — “Look rebellious, act more crude / Bring your best bad attitude” — it’s hard not to hear it as a diagnosis of the show’s central flaw. Looking rebellious and being rebellious are very nearly opposites.
School of Rock is at the Winter Garden Theatre.