It’s not every day that a group of schoolchildren receive a standing ovation at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. But on March 3, students from the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) basked in waves of applause. The Bay Area visual and performing arts charter school had just staged the first amateur production of the new Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater, and Julian Fellowes musical School of Rock, based on the 2003 Richard Linklater film about an out-of-work musician who transforms—you guessed it—a group of schoolchildren into a rock band.
After the show, tweens and teens in Juilliard hoodies and Fosse tank tops recorded heartfelt video testimonials to send to their counterparts on Broadway, where the show is still running at the Winter Garden Theatre. The young cast mingled onstage with their proud parents and teachers, as well as with local celebrities like Carole Shorenstein Hays, the Curran’s owner and manager, and Gov. Jerry Brown.
Broadway musicals almost never release amateur performance rights while the show is still going strong in New York. Yet with its themes of empowering children through music, upending tradition, and “sticking it to the man,” the team behind School of Rock wanted to take its lessons to kids right away. The day after the show opened on Broadway last December, the production announced that youth performance rights were available and that OSA would present the first amateur production. (Interested parties can apply to R&H Theatricals for performance rights. All performers must be aged 18 or younger.)
“With what’s going on in the world right now, music in education is a vital thing,” composer Lloyd Webber said in an interview on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in November.
In a case of art imitating life, the OSA production inspired students to learn to play instruments. “Kai [Estrella Kowal, who played Freddie], the drummer, had never picked up drumsticks until a week before the audition,” recalled Michael Berry, who directed the production. “He had crash private lessons to learn how to play the drums to audition. These kids are committed. They saw this grand opportunity and wanted to be part of it.”
While School of Rock is a crowd-pleasing musical comedy, it presents some casting challenges. The male lead, Dewey Finn (a star-making role for Jack Black in the film and Alex Brightman on Broadway), requires a hyper-kinetic, hammy, and totally endearing actor. The female lead, Principal Rosalie Mullins, must be able to sing Mozart arias as well as plaintive Lloyd Webber pop ballads with equal facility. Most importantly, the show lives or dies on the strength of its rock band: the triple-threat children who sing, act, and play musical instruments.
To meet these demands, OSA had some special advantages. The school enrolls 6th through 12th graders, so the middle-schoolers could play the students and the high schoolers could play the adults. Furthermore, OSA requires its performing arts applicants to audition and accepts about one in four.
Still, producing School of Rock was no easy task for OSA, especially considering the time constraints. When producing large-scale musicals, OSA usually holds auditions in September and rehearses for about six months, but to fulfill the terms of their contract, they had to put School of Rock up in just seven weeks. Also, since this was only the second production of the show anywhere, the materials that OSA needed to produce the show were still being manufactured during the process.
“We didn’t have a book until the second week of January [and] no orchestrations until the last week of January,” Berry said. “[At auditions], we couldn’t reveal what the show was so we blindly auditioned all these kids for a show we couldn’t talk about. I came up with a list of suggested rock songs that the kids could choose from to audition. We cast the show in a couple of days, but then working through the rehearsal logistics was challenging. We called all the kids for every rehearsal—six or seven days a week for seven weeks. They are really resilient and hardworking.”
This resilience paid off during tech week, when Berry realized that he’d need to reblock the show to meet the unique demands of the Curran’s space. Shorenstein Hays, who recently began operating the theatre as an independent entity, embarked on a major renovation of the building, which has made the Curran’s lobby and 1,650-seat auditorium temporarily inaccessible. So this season, the theatre has been hosting intimate, nontraditional events on the stage. At the School of Rock performance, about 150 people sat in long rows of chairs on risers, facing toward the auditorium’s seats, and the students performed the show on the wide, shallow apron. A nine-player band sat in the wings, and a live video monitor on the back wall of the theatre allowed the students to watch the conductor.
The lessons the students learned from their School of Rock experience and the connections that they forged with the Curran are paying off already. On March 14, the Curran hosted an event featuring the creative team of the Broadway musical Fun Home, which concluded with a stirring chorale performance of “Ring of Keys” from the show by OSA students. Composer Jeanine Tesori introduced the group and touted the students’ ability to learn the song in 24 hours.
Asked if he had any advice for schools that want to produce School of Rock, Berry noted that the task should be easier in the future, as the production schedule will probably not be as tight. “The story tells itself,” he said. “Find yourself a great core group, and then fully engage in the story, and just have fun. In the rehearsal process, you might lose sight of what’s there beyond the laughs, but on opening night, I heard the story in a different way. It really encourages kids to have a voice…Let them be kids and have fun and the audience will go along with the ride.”