The Oakland School for the Arts this week will present the world’s first amateur production of the Broadway hit School of Rock, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer behind the musicals Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Sunset Boulevard.
It’s a dream come true for the Oakland charter school's many theater kids, the ones who grow up believing that one day they'll sing and tap their heart out on Broadway.
Tenth grader Jack Isaacson Brewster plays the lead.
“Okay, I’m the second person to play Dewey in the musical School of Rock.” Brewster said at a recent rehearsal. “That’s just so crazy to me. Wow!”
Brewster and his cast mates, the band, the director, and music director, stage manager and set designer, plus a few parents were milling about on Saturday at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. This is where the kids will be presenting School of Rock for the first time on Thursday, and where the show will continuing through March 12.
The show is a sweet comedy, based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Black, with songs by Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes. It tells the story of a misfit rock-and-roller and how he becomes mentor to a classroom of misfit kids who triumph despite the odds.
It's by no means a fresh story, but the student performers are so into it, like tenth grader Tatiana Cordoba from Castro Valley. Cordoba plays one of the parents and she says she’s gaining insights about both sides of the child-parent dynamic.
“I think it’s really special to have a show,” Cordoba said, “where you really get to see the inside of a kid, and their heart and their head, and how like they’re really more mature than people think they are.”
The kids have the chance to perform the musical because Andrew Lloyd Webber is releasing the amateur performance rights years ahead of the usual schedule for a successful Broadway show.
“This is a piece about children making music,” said Webber, who founded a charity that funds music and arts education in England and New York City. “And the more young people get involved with making music and theater, then the more they love theater and come to theater. Anyway that’s how I started.”
Webber gave the rights for the first amateur production to the Oakland School for the Arts, because producer and Curran Theater owner Carole Shorenstein Hays suggested the school to Webber, and then she invited the students to stage the show at the Curran.
But it was a bit of a dilemma for School for the Arts staff. Musicals are so logistically challenging that even this school, which is devoted to the performing arts, had decided to do a musical every other year only. This was supposed to be a down year.
“The academic teachers don’t have this on their calendar,” principal Donn Harris said. “And I come in and say, we’re going to charge ahead. So I’ve got to smooth those waters.”
But then Harris explains why he couldn’t pass up the offer. “Maybe there’s some competitive fire with those other schools that didn’t get it.”
Normally, musicals take five to six months to produce, but theater teacher and director Michael Berry says they’ve done this show in just over seven weeks, with the student performers rehearsing six and seven days a week.
“This is what arts education is about,” Berry said. “Most of these kids are not going to go on to the performing arts, but this experience is something they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.”
That’s certainly true for School for the Arts Stage Manager Isabel Gartland. She was in NYC with her family, and got to shadow the stage hands and Broadway production stage manager.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to see what it’s like to be in the theater industry.” Gartland said. “Instead of being in just a high school production, because this seems much bigger than a high school production.”
Webber says he’s thrilled the kids are enjoying themselves. It’s exactly what he had in mind when he made School of Rock available for youth theater productions.
“It empowers,” Webber said. “And that’s why I want the kids to perform the piece. And have fun with it. And that’s the most important thing. To have fun with it. To rock out."
One disappointment for anyone who was hoping to catch School of Rock without going to New York, or waiting a few years for a touring company to come to San Francisco, you’re probably out of luck. The Oakland School for the Arts shows are sold out.