Sunday, November 06, 2016

School of Rock

School of Rock is charming and engaging and the kind of big, shiny Broadway musical you could totally bring your kids or your friends from out of town to. It's basically a stage rendition of the movie, with a few catchy (if too frequently reprised and thus eventually a little tiresome) songs by Andrew Lloyd-Webber tossed in for good measure. (I say this, by the way, as someone who has absolutely no problem with Lloyd-Webber or his compositional style; in fact, I found some of his signature modal flourishes weirdly comforting, here.) Alex Brightman, as Dewey, is as committed, adorable and talented as everyone says he is. The kids are, too--even those who don't totally fucking wail on the guitar, bass, keyboards or drums. The whole cast, really, is energetic and hard-working. They all did their damnedest to win me over. They came pretty close.

Matthew Murphy
Full disclosure: I am a cynical theatergoer and I'm especially critical of staged rock musicals, which I've noted in previous posts is a very rare occupational hazard but one I can claim nonetheless. Also, this election has totally fucked with my head and put me in an even darker place than I typically am. So take this review with a grain of salt. I realize that for many people, a light, funny evening at the theater with winning characters, reasonably catchy songs and some jokes that even I laughed out loud at would be plenty. But here's the thing that bugged me: School of Rock plays on a bunch of racial and cultural stereotypes that I'm really, really tired of seeing on Broadway all the damn time.

A couple of years ago, I dug into some of the ones that bug me most in my review of Rock of Ages, which School of Rock reminded me of in a number of ways. Both are breezy, funny, high-energy rock musicals that don't take themselves too seriously, and that poke fun at while simultaneously reinforcing rock's cultural conventions. Rock culture is certainly worth taking potshots at, lordy knows. It's the reinforcement of some of its more stubborn assumptions that wear me down.

You know the ones: rock is authentic and real, man. All other kinds of music are total bullshit. Rock is powerful and thus manly, so there's no room for women or gay men, who should all just fuck off. Rock is white people's music, with some carefully chosen and culturally contained exceptions. Yawn, yawn, yawn, yawn, yawn.

So as with Rock of Ages, School of Rock is ultimately about a dude's quest to be a rock star. In this case, the dude is named Dewey, and he ends up faking his way into a gig as a substitute teacher at a fancy private school. Once there, he teaches the group of kids he ends up with to form a band that takes part in a local Battle of the Bands competition. The kids lose, but they bond with each other and Dewey, and they all Learn Something About Themselves And Others by the end of the show. Through the magic and awesome power of rock, Dewey wins over the kids and their universally douchey parents, gets the girl (in this case the uptight--if secretly sexy, rock-loving!--principal of the school), and lands himself a job as the school's music instructor.

That's all well and good, and again, I wish I didn't catch the unsettling underside of it all, but I do, especially when it's as lazy and obvious as it is in School of Rock, whose only character truly approximating a villain is the humorless, domineering girlfriend of Dewey's henpecked best friend. Dewey lives with them and never pays rent, you see, and she--gasp!--is sick of him freeloading and wants him to move out (that fucking bitch!). The one obviously gay kid in Dewey's class ends up designing the band's costumes and makeup ("yessssssssssss!" he hisses while snapping excitedly when Dewey assigns him this task...because he's GAY! HILARIOUS!!!!). Then there's the scene when Dewey screams in anguish at the kids who tell him they love Taylor Swift or Barbra Streisand (more women who aren't in one of the six all-male dinosaur bands he worships! Fuck those kids and their uncool, unacceptable taste!).

Then there's the shyest kid in the class, who turns out to have a fantastic set of pipes. Great! Except that with said pipes, she is transformed midway through the show into the requisite Big Black Lady who stops the show with her bluesy rendition of "Amazing Grace." This earns her belated entry into the band of the three female backup singers. Kudos! But, hey, she gets a solo during the big competition, so I guess that's nice for her; maybe when the actor playing this game character grows up she can get a job in the inevitable revival of Rock of Ages as Justice Charlier, the sassy bordello owner who brings that house down with a big spiritual number that helps the lead white couple resolve all their problems and live happily ever after. Or maybe we could cut all this covert sexist, homophobic, racist shit out.

Look, I recognize how humorless this review makes me sound. But seriously, can't Broadway delight and entertain and dazzle without relying on the the same bullshit cultural tropes and lazy assumptions we've been perpetuating in musicals--and movies and television shows and, given where we are politically, in real fucking life--for generations now? Dewey would still be really funny. The kids would still be great on their instruments. Love would prevail. Who would miss the baggage, really, if it went away? Not me, that's for sure. I wish the very best for the cast and creative team of this show, and for the audiences who are clearly delighted by it night after night. I just wish schooling mass audiences in how to rock righteously didn't have to come with such bitter, cliched chasers.

No comments: