How Alex Brightman Retunes a Modern Classic in 'School of Rock: The Musical'
Alex Brightman onstage in School of Rock
Photo by Timmy Blupe
Alex Brightman was just eight years old when he caught his first Broadway show, Cats, at the Winter Garden Theatre; the next musical he saw was the seminal rock opera The Who's Tommy. Now twenty-eight, the actor is set to return to the Winter Garden, but this time he won't be sitting in the audience — he'll be starring in School of Rock: The Musical, an adaptation of the hit 2003 film that fuses what Brightman so loved about those first two forays into musical theater. The internationally celebrated Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, too many others to name) wrote the music for School of Rock, further strengthening the connection between that first showing of Cats and Brightman's impending breakout role.
Brightman was drawn to the guitar from a young age, teaching himself the rudiments through reading tablature online and eventually playing in a "very ill-fated punk band" in his teenage years. "It was in the time of the Used and My Chemical Romance, so a lot of titles didn't really make sense 100 percent," he says sheepishly. "So our band was called Drive Like Down. It made no sense and it was three different words — that's what we were."
Before landing School of Rock, his first big Broadway lead, Brightman performed in various productions, including Matilda the Musical and Wicked; occasionally, during spots of downtime backstage, he'd bust out a guitar to noodle around with. But upon being cast in the role of Dewey, School of Rock's guitar-wielding protagonist, Brightman embraced the instrument with a new verve, taking weekly lessons at Replay Music Studios with instructor Dan Kleederman for three months. "It was a lot of soloing. I had never done that before and [had to learn] how it works and relates to music theory," he says. "By proxy of learning how to solo, I now know more music theory than I ever have."
Brightman's School of Rock ax is a cherry-sunburst Gibson Les Paul — among rock 'n' roll's shiniest totems, though one that also serves as a prime example of the many subtle deviations from the original film. "It's not the [Gibson] SG that Jack Black played in the movie, but I'm kind of glad it's a little departure," he says. "I get my own iconic guitar for this one." In fact, part of what makes School of Rock: The Musical a commendable effort is how the show builds upon the original and tinkers with its formula. At the core of these alterations is Brightman's Dewey, who trades Black's aberrant mannerisms for a peppier presence.
"I always think, in any adaption, there needs to be something inherently flawed in the original material. I say the word 'flawed' not meaning in a negative way; I mean you can only do so much in a movie that you can do in a musical," Brightman explains. "By virtue of it being a movie, they couldn't do what we're doing onstage right now and we couldn't do what they did in the movie."
Brightman feels that the stage is more liberating and allows for multiple new musical moments. Webber, along with lyricist Glenn Slater, created twelve original songs for School of Rock, including "You're in the Band" and "Where Did the Rock Go?" As for approaching the part of Dewey, Brightman knew he couldn't mimic Black's portrayal — which pretty much solidified the wild man's top-billing status — and set about tackling the character from a more realistic angle.
"I can't, for the life of me, do a Jack Black impression. Gun to my head, it's not something in my wheelhouse," Brightman says. "When I came in to audition for it, I was like, 'I can't do an impression, so I'm just going to do my thing.' I put myself in the same situation of a burnout who is then saddled with thirteen kids in a school that he has no business being in — how would I, Alex Brightman, react to that?"
He can't exactly recall seeing School of Rock back when it hit theaters over a decade ago, but Brightman admits he's since seen it "probably 6,000 times, like everybody else." And, though Broadway and its showtunes grabbed him at an early age, he says rock 'n' roll has remained a major influence.
"AC/DC: number one," he says, picking favorites. "But I've always been a fan of a lot of these bands, and [School of Rock] really ramped up my education on even the smaller albums. Led Zeppelin, Van Halen — all that stuff. And to keep me frisky and froggy, I've been listening to a lot of Panic! at the Disco and good get-up-and-go music like Cobra Starship."
How about before he hits the stage — is rock 'n' roll blasting five minutes before the call for places? "There's nothing wrong with 'Back in Black,' but my real ritual, which is a ritual I've had for years, has nothing to do with music. I spend ten minutes with my headphones on listening to a Pandora station of stand-up comedy," Brightman says. He especially enjoys hearing people laugh and observing the comedian's pacing on these recordings.
Excluding opening number "I'm Too Hot for You," Brightman says, every instrument you see onstage is actually being played by the actor holding it. The guitar parts are not tracked; the basslines are not engineered. The same goes for the child actors, with guitarist Brandon Niederauer and keyboardist Jared Parker showing some serious chops. The decision to integrate live music into the performance not only enhances the rock show atmosphere but helps galvanize some of School of Rock's finest moments. Watching the misfit band riffing together for the first time on the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" precipitates chills for the way School of Rock embraces music's ageless reach and all-inclusive appeal. And steering the ship, all the while, is Brightman, using an intrepid technique that's rock to the core.
"This is going to be a very boring answer for a really good reason: Because I have a history of improv, when I go onstage or [into] a rehearsal room, I don't see anything as a risk. If something bubbles up inside me it comes out," he says. "I've taken off my restrictor plate years ago, as far as creativity goes, and I just let it go. I have zero risks or regret when going into a creative project. And thankfully [the producers] have been so open to that, which is why I think the show works."
School of Rock: The Musical opens on December 6 at the Winter Garden Theatre. For ticket information, click here.
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