Where’s the Body Positivity in School of Rock?

Sara Zweig

My normal reaction to the movie-to-Broadway musical is to proceed with caution. But when Andrew Lloyd Webber, founding father of the rock opera, announced a musical adaptation of the 2003 film School of Rock, I threw caution to the wind and made sure to get my butt into one of those Winter Garden seats. School of Rock was a far more progressive and fascinating film than the public gives it credit for. First of all, it twists the traditional ‘teacher transforms troubled group of students’ narrative by making the students far more responsible and maturethan their substitute. It re-defines what a successful student looks like and shows the value of an arts education. It prompts the audience to realize that everyone has an equal contribution to make in this world, whether you’re a excellent student, a talented singer, or have a knack for cheering people up.  It also elegantly confronts issues of self-esteem (most notably on fatness) and performs the type of encouraging, all-inclusive empowerment that teacher and student alike benefits from.

With this approach in mind, I was sadly disappointed with the changes made by the Broadway production team. That’s not to say that the musical is not a good one. It augments everything in the movie that makes a great transition to the stage: the zany, twisted energy of its Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman in the Jack Black role), catchy musical numbers complete with classic rock attire, the seamless addition of more traditional showtunes and ballads. Although one song wonders “Where did the rock go?”, the characters are happy enough to embrace Webber’s alloyed material. The show also retains the film’s general “anti-authority” message, adding a song called “Stick It to the Man” that has become the show’s main anthem in press material.

However, what lacks in this production is the film’s all-inclusive honesty that touched me and many other fans. In the movie, Dewey comforts one of his students, Tameka, an overweight black girl who is afraid to go onstage. Here’s a quick transcript:

Dewey : What is it? Are you nervous? What are you afraid of?

Tameka: They’re going to laugh at me.

Dewey: Why are they gonna laugh at you?

Tameka: I don’t know, cause I’m fat.

Dewey: Tameka, hey, you’ve got something everybody wants. You’ve got talent. You have an incredible singing voice and I’m not just saying that. You’ve heard of Aretha Franklin, right? Alright, she’s a big lady. But when she starts singing, she blows people’s minds and everybody wants to party with Aretha! And um, you know who else has a weight issue…

Tameka: Who?

Dewey: Me. But once I get up on stage, start doing my thing, people WORSHIP ME. Because I’m sexy. AND chubby, man.

Tameka: Why don’t you go on a diet?

Dewey: Because I like to eat. Is that such a crime? Look, you know what? That’s not even the point. The thing is, you’re a rock star now. All you gotta do is go out there and rock your heart out. People are going to dig you, I swear. Let’s just go out there and show them what we’ve got. What do you say?

He kneels down in front of her and gives her a hug. She smiles. This tenderness is not shown in the musical. In fact, it’s entirely removed. In the musical, Tameka is a slim girl whose weight is never presented as an issue. Instead, fatness is the punchline of many jokes. Take the treatment of Alex Brightman’s fatness. Told upon casting that he was just enough “out of shape”to not gain more weight (as if fitness and fatness were exclusive of each other), the musical’’s version of Dewey admonishes his bouncy belly with added lines like, “You don't think I know what it's like to be fat and lazy?" a joke about a 300 lb. woman choking on a hamburger and a lyric where he dreams of having a “Chiseled rock god physique.” Brightman’s exposed stomach, (y’know, during the amazing athletic flips and dancing he does throughout the show) is used as a comedic prop.

I’m not here to say we can’t share a laugh at the silliness of human bodies, or that we should be afraid to look ugly on stage. But there’s not much else by ways of self-love or inclusivity in this show. Again, fatness is shamed when Lawrence, the band’s pianist, tells Dewey that he doesn’t consider himself cool. Dewey somehow interprets Lawrence’s self-doubt as about being fat (he’s not) and begins trying to make him feel cool, in spite of his fatness. Lawrence, meanwhile, is dumbfounded, because he is not fat. He doesn’t feel fat. Dewey projects his insecurity onto Lawrence. This kind of exchange happens at least twice. Ha. hilarious.

The same negativity takes place around Billy, the student fashionista, and his perceived homosexuality. His femininity becomes an over-the-top stereotype, like when he suggests “Pig Rectum” for the band name. In the film, it’s suggested by a female student and its comedy comes from its spontaneity. Here, the musical is using a student’s identity as a target for mockery. The character is a flat, walking stereotype set up for laughs. Is that what it looks like to stick it to the man?

Why is it that the Broadway audience, which is supposed to be a home for misfits and outcasts, enjoys these politically incorrect jokes at the expense of others? I have a working theory that shows with musicals (Galavant, Glee), and shows with gay leads (Modern Family, The New Normal) take chances making fun of fat people, people of color, and yes, even homosexuals, in order to seem less preachy or misfit. In lieu of being viewed as too sanctimonious (and therefore, easily dismissed as trite or idealistic), they become more risqué and insulting-- as if to say, look, our show has heart AND BITE!  It mistakes meanness as subversion. True inclusivity is subversive in its radical, non-judgmental love for every person.

I am not the type of critic to judge an adaptation based on its faithfulness to the original. However, I think that differences need to be analyzed: how does these choices contribute to or change the overall work? Because of this ‘heart and bite’ approach to the material, Dewey’s relationship with the children is nowhere near as comforting and genuine as that in the film. The movie shows various scenes where Dewey stands up for his students and reaches out in genuine concern.  Whereas Jack Black’s Dewey spreads the power of self-confidence AND self-expression to his students, modeling it through his own growth as a responsible and caring adult, Brightman’s Dewey seems to be motivated by his own quest for fame. Any relationship with the students just happens to be a side effect of the artistic freedom he champions.