Inside the 'School of Rock' Musical's Poignant Ballads and Feminist References

Brad Barket/Getty Images
Andrew Lloyd Webber with Alex Brightman and the 'School of Rock — The Musical' cast

"Kids today have so much pressure. ... They're not allowed to be kids because their parents are so focused on their adulthoods when they're in elementary school."

School of Rock – The Musical is an adaptation that harmonizes well with the hit 2003 film, says the movie's original cast.

"I'm a little jealous that they get to relive this story every night," said Brian Falduto the film's pint-size stylist, who is most often remembered for the "You're tacky and I hate you" scene. "People have said that line to me too often over the past 12 years — I'm glad it's getting some use now!"

Like the Richard Linklater comedy, which had Jack Black help buttoned-up, unhip prep-schoolers liberate their inner rock gods, the musical adaptation features a cast of children who play their own instruments onstage.

"The most important part of this whole magical thing is that they're revamping what got kids picking up instruments," said Kevin Clark, who was the film's drummer, Freddy. Joey Gaydos Jr., who played the guitar-shredding Zack in the film, agreed: "It's crazy — over the years, people have told me, 'I started playing the guitar because of you.' "

Despite their youth, the School of Rock stage production's core band members are seasoned instrumentalists with classic tastes. Lead guitarist Brandon Niederauer adores the Allman Brothers; drummer Dante Melucci loves Green Day and Rush; bassist Evie Dolan loves Ingrid Michaelson and Stevie Nicks, especially "Landslide" and "Edge of 17," which is featured in the show. But their singing and acting is at its most poignant in the ballad "If Only You Would Listen," the biggest addition to Mike White's original screenplay, which specifically amplifies the voices of these children, as it zooms in on their home lives and inner thoughts.

"We felt that was the one area we didn't know about, and though there isn’t much time to look at that, a scene with their aspirations and their point of view was vitally important," Andrew Lloyd Webber told The Hollywood Reporter.

Lyricist Glenn Slater added: "Kids today have so much pressure, and the weight of the expectation to achieve from a very young age is the big crisis in their lives. They're not allowed to be kids because their parents are so focused on their adulthoods when they're in elementary school."

The Laurence Connor-directed musical also has what Rebecca Brown (the film's bassist Katie) calls "new, feminist-y references" that are "brilliant and progressive as hell" — something book writer Julian Fellowes prioritized.

"It's always better when writing for children to expect them to pick things up and be quick, because even if they're not particularly ready, they'll appreciate being treated as intelligent rather than stupid," the Downton Abbey creator explained. "I think all human beings respond to being treated as if they were intelligent, and usually they're more intelligent than you know."

Already a solid box-office performer with announced plans for a London run and U.S. tour, School of Rock may help bring more permanence to arts education — or at least that's the hope of Alex Brightman — who plays the Jack Black role of Dewey Finn. (He confesses he's on "a sumo wrestler diet" of protein and rice, since he loses about two pounds per show.)

"What inspired me when I heard music and saw theater as a kid was not that I wanted to do it, but to think creatively and outside of boxes," Brightman explained. "Kids are missing out if that's not happening. They're becoming more automaton-like and either failing or succeeding, and there's actually a huge middle. It's okay to say 'I don't know.' It's okay to be different. And music allows people to pick their genre — not only of music, but of who they are, of their personalities."

Whatever message audiences take away from the show, Lloyd Webber is content with the memorable response he received at Sunday's Hard Rock Cafe bash after the opening-night performance, attended by the film's cast and guests including Sarah Paulson, Helen Mirren, Harvey Weinstein, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Leslie Odom Jr., Renee Elise Goldsberry, Neil Patrick Harris, Shanice Williams, Laverne Cox, Mick Fleetwood and Nicks, who is referenced in the musical and watched from the front row.

"A woman, who I didn't know and was going through a horrid divorce, said to me, 'I simply forgot about all my own personal troubles and found myself in this wonderful world of music, and what it can do for people,'" said the composer. "'And what I'm going to do is dig out all my old favorite records, and see if that will help me get through the next few weeks.' That's probably one of the most strong reactions I think I can ever remember having on an opening night, and that's all we wanted."