At first glance, two slightly starchy, wealthy, and conservative Brits, both members of the House of Lords, wouldn’t be at the top of many people’s list to write a musical based on the 2003 Jack Black movie “School of Rock.” That film, after all, tells the story of a slacker substitute teacher and wannabe rock god who helps transform a group of pint-size prep schoolers into a fist-pumping, foot-stomping rock band that wants to “stick it to the man.”
One of those figures, Julian Fellowes, 69, is the Oscar-winning writer (”Gosford Park”) who created the upstairs-downstairs period-drama phenomenon “Downton Abbey.” The other, Andrew Lloyd Webber, 70, is the Tony Award-winning composer responsible for unleashing the power-ballad musical on the masses with blockbusters like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita,” and “Cats.” Neither man is exactly the epitome of rock ’n’ roll cool.
And you won’t get any objections from Fellowes himself if you make that observation. “Yes, I didn’t think I was a natural choice. It wasn’t an obvious transition to go from ‘Downton Abbey’ to this, so I was pretty surprised, to be honest,” he says, over the phone from his home in London. “But I’d been drowning in lady’s maids and footmen for so long, I was absolutely delighted to do it. It was a wonderful break from my other stuff and the chance to do something completely different.”
In the end, Lloyd Webber and Fellowes’s pairing with lyricist Glenn Slater (“Tangled,” the theatrical adaptation of “The Little Mermaid”) and director Laurence Connor appears to have been an inspired choice for adapting the shaggily spirited, idiosyncratic film, written by Mike White and directed by indie auteur Richard Linklater, for the stage. Indeed, the show recently wrapped up a three-year run on Broadway, where it was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best musical and best score. The national tour of “School of Rock: The Musical,” presented by Broadway in Boston, arrives at the Boston Opera House for a run from Feb. 12-24.
Madeleine Lloyd Webber, the composer’s wife, was the executive producer of the Broadway show and the initial driving force behind the screen-to-stage adaptation. She agrees the Fellowes-Lloyd Webber partnership may seem unexpected, but points out that her husband did, after all, write one of the earliest rock operas — “Jesus Christ Superstar” — in 1970. “When you look at Andrew, it’s dangerous to pigeonhole him,” she says in a phone interview.
The “School of Rock” film was a favorite of Lloyd Webber’s children. The first time her kids made her watch it, she was “crying with laughter.” Halfway through the movie, she realized its potential as a musical. “I thought if we could ever turn real children into musicians in front of your eyes, it would be the most amazing theatrical coup,” she says.
In 2006, she reached out to Paramount Pictures, which produced the film and owned the stage rights; it promptly turned her down. Lloyd Webber, remained undaunted. She made a note in her diary to check in with the studio every year; after six years of asking, Paramount finally said yes. “I think they just couldn’t think of any more excuses,” she says.
Though it was a music-centric film, “School of Rock” contained only a few songs written for the movie — including the title tune, which ended up in the musical — and snippets of rock anthems from the likes of Stevie Nicks, the Ramones, Led Zeppelin, and the Velvet Underground. “Andrew looked at it and said, ‘You realize this is going to need 10 new songs?’ ” Lloyd Webber recalls. “‘You’ve got to have songs for everyone and get the characters right.’”
After mulling it over, her husband agreed to compose a full-fledged score. “He’s a complete sucker for a fantastic story,” she says. “After having worked for 15 years on serious subjects, it’s going back to his fun days of rock and more family-friendly entertainment.” Some of the melodic new earworms he wrote include the anthemic show-stopper “Stick It to the Man” and the rollicking “You’re in the Band.”
At the center of the story is the dyspeptic Dewey Finn, a schlubby layabout who has been kicked out of his own band. In desperate need of money to pay the rent, Dewey passes himself off as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school, where he proceeds to fall asleep, grumble about being hungover, and ignore his charges most of the day. But when he realizes these overachieving fifth-graders have real musical talent, he gets busy transforming them into guitar-shredding, song-belting rock stars, while secretly preparing them to perform in a Battle of the Bands. Along the way, sparks fly between him and the school’s tightly-wound principal, Rosalie Mullins.
“Dewey teaches the kids to have the confidence to be themselves, and he uses playing in the band to give them a sense of self,” Fellowes says. “He is incapable of resisting once he sees clearly that he can help these kids, and he knows how to pull them together. At first, it grows out of his desire to enter the Battle of the Bands. But then he starts to catch their own enthusiasm.”
The kids include the outspoken Summer, who first clashes with Dewey but later becomes the band’s manager; smart-aleck guitarist Zack, who struggles in school but may have found his calling in songwriting; new kid Tomika, whose shyness belies an incredible set of pipes; and stoic keyboardist Lawrence, who worries he’s not cool enough to be in a band.
“He teaches them you can let loose and sometimes it’s OK to break the rules or do something you’re not supposed to do,” says Sami Bray, who plays Summer. “It’s OK to have fun!”
The job, Fellowes explains, was to flesh out the characters and their stories, particularly the children, and give them more definition. When a small-scale, concert version of the show was mounted at the Gramercy Theater in Manhattan in early 2015 before opening on Broadway, the show’s creators knew they had hit on something indelible. “We all had that feeling that we’d caught lightning in a bottle.”
‘It was a wonderful break from my other stuff and the chance to do something completely different.’
The son of a diplomat-turned-business executive, Fellowes says he always felt like an outsider growing up among the upper crust in the 1950s and ’60s. He saw the Beatles and Rolling Stones perform live, and wanted to tap into rock’s spirit of abandon in writing this show. “I’ve seen those rock crowds going mad, and it haunted me, actually. It was extraordinary, this group hysteria that one was in the middle of. It would quite scare me, I think, to be a rock star. You suddenly realize you’re unleashing this extraordinary torrent of emotion. I hope we harnessed a bit of that with ‘School of Rock.’ ”
For Madeleine Lloyd Webber, the show’s charms are irresistible. “When you see these kids, who start out playing their instruments really tentatively, rocking out at the end of the show, you’d have to be pretty miserable to not come out of the theater smiling. If that doesn’t melt your heart, what will?”
School of Rock: The Musical
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At the Boston Opera House, Feb. 12-24. Tickets from $44.50, 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.