OnStage New York Critic
I went into the new musical adaptation of School of Rock very skeptical. Skeptical that it could be as good as the movie, skeptical that Jack Black’s shadow could be thrown off, skeptical that Andrew Lloyd Webber should be doing a musical that seemed so trendy, being filled with children. I rarely go into a new musical with such reservations, and I admit it clouded my judgment the first time through (I was very lucky to get a second chance to appreciate it). There was one part, though, that got me even with the wall of skepticism I put up during that first viewing. It was the part when Sierra Boggess, as Principal Rosalie Mullins, stood up and lamented the loss of the music that used to drive her life. Upon her completion of “Where Did The Rock Go?” I very annoyingly turned to my theatrical companion and expressed my immediate excitement for the song. I hadn’t so loved a Webber song in years, and I love Webber songs. As I thought more about it, I began to think that it might be the saddest song he’s ever written.
If you recognize my name from the byline, you may recall that I once wrote an article for On Stage about what seemed to be a Holocaust song in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and if you made that connection, you might question why I think a principal singing about her more carefree days might be sadder than a Holocaust song. “Close Every Door” resembles but is not actually a Holocaust song, and in fact is ultimately a hopeful song, “for [he knows he] will find [his] own piece of mind.”
Thinking back on all of the Webber I know, which is pretty much all of it, I don’t really think he has very many songs that might be sadder. “Memory” springs immediately to mind, and is admittedly similar in theme to “Where Did The Rock Go?” Songs about lost or unrequited love, like “Nothing Like You’ve Ever Known,” might be as universal, but the feelings expressed in them are easier to get over than considering lost youth and opportunity. Those feelings don’t go away with a new love interest. In a show like Jesus Christ Superstar, there’s plenty of sadness, especially toward the end, but the songs themselves, including the title song sung as Jesus takes his final walk, are of a more radical, revolutionary tone, mocking and angry and looking for change.
The sad parts of Webber musicals are found more in moments than in songs. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” is beautiful, but if you want a punch to the gut from The Phantom of the Opera, consider these few lines from toward the end: “This face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing, a mask my first unfeeling scrap of clothing.” His mother covered his face before she swaddled him. I don’t care how jealous you are of Phantom’s success, that hurts. But it’s not a song. Part of the reason for this is that Webber’s musicals tend to be about determined, unstoppable people, like Eva Peron or Marian Halcombe, or people too delusional to feel real, relatable sadness, like Norma Desmond. The Phantom has had a terrible existence, but we don’t feel bad for him because he kills people.
Now, using a superlative to describe anything is a risky game, and when I do it here I’m not objective. I can’t relate to a cat or a messiah or a phantom the way I can relate to Rosalie Mullins, which may be why her song gets to me more than their plights. I’m no one’s principal, but I have reached that point in life where the colors are not as bright, the music not as seductive, and I’m really noticing and wishing I’d done a few things differently that might have preserved those tones. “Somehow I got older, year by busy year. Yes, the songs kept playing, but I didn’t stop to hear.” She sings of “youth and swagger” being replaced by “grown-up doubt,” which I not only experience but see all over my facebook feed, from friends in all different walks of life but somehow at the same stage I am in that sense. Many lyrics express a very specific kind of loss: “Where do last year’s one hit wonders go to?” “The music faded out” “When did all the static fill the airwaves” “Now the only thing I’m hearing are the echoes disappearing.” It’s like “the day the music died” was Groundhog Day.
But the lyric that kills me is one of the last: “If you flip the record and start over, does it sound the way it did before?” No, Rosalie, it doesn’t. If you replay a CD or a sound file, something digital, it will sound exactly the same, but by playing a record you have worn it down just a little bit, and it will never sound exactly the same again. I don’t know how deliberate the imagery was, but major kudos to Glen Slater for that line in particular. After the climax of the song, she apologizes for getting all nostalgic and regretful, not knowing that her companion at the table, Dewey Finn, knows only too well what she’s going through, as do we all. School of Rock looks like its about kids, which was part of my reluctance to embrace it in the wake of musicals like Billy Elliot, Matilda, and Finding Neverland, and maybe the kid factor is a major contributor to financial success, but as in those musicals, the kids have their stories, but they are also means to adults’ ends. School of Rock is about exactly that sad reality of replaying records, that most tangible and earthy of listening experiences: it won’t sound the same, you can’t go back and re-do life. But you can keep listening, and find more to love upon future listenings (as I do whenever I re-listen to a Webber cast recording), and go forward in a positive new direction.
One of the drawbacks of writing about songs is I can only really quote the lyrics, which in this case are by Glen Slater, but I referred to the song as possibly the saddest by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who writes the music. So while I can’t quote the music, I want to finish up by describing it and its importance to my appreciation as best I can, and also write a word or two about Sierra Boggess’s voice for this song. First the voice: she’s an operatic singer, she was in Master Class and Phantom and Love Never Dies, and even in School of Rock sings everyone’s favorite operatic lick from the Queen of the Night’s aria in The Magic Flute.
But whereas you can’t really create operatic power from a light voice, you can focus operatic power into a light touch, and even though I know she can reach the top note in the arpeggio on the word “where” in the refrain of this song, the delicate way that she sings that word, seemingly almost breaking at the top, brings so much feeling to the song. And I don’t know enough about rock history to know who Webber was trying to emulate with “Where Did the Rock Go?” though my instinct tells me Stevie Nicks, since the characters bond over her music just before the song starts, but from the kind of folk-rock feel of the solo guitar at the beginning to the almost Jesus Christ Superstar-like passion at the climax, I cannot imagine such a song sounding any other way. There’s a simple yearning in the music that represents how collected and organized Rosalie Mullins and her feelings about music are, with a hint of the freedom they so desire that nearly breaks through. Makes me want to learn guitar just so I can perform this song.
Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog on tumblr (http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and writes about culture and politics at Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com). He has also been published on ThoughtCatalog.com and TheHumanist.com. Follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.