Alex Brightman plays the lead character, Dewey, in the stage musical “School of Rock,” which is based on the 2003 Jack Black movie of the same name.
The musical retains the basic story of the film: A struggling musician who has no right to be teaching kids ends up doing just that. Rather than work on world history, math and social studies, he picks up a guitar and transforms his prep school students into a rock band. Along the way, the kids — and their teacher — find fulfillment.
I'm going to start with an indelicate question. When I saw your show, I couldn't help but notice that the kid who plays Zack, the young guitarist [played by] Brandon Niederauer, got a little sprayed in the face by a certain actor's high-volume spittle. And I'm just wondering, is that an occupational hazard for anyone in the show?
Yes, it is a hazard always and every night. I feel like we're on a basketball court. We need someone to mop up between numbers. And also the front row, someone has described it now as being in the front row of a Gallagher show. They're gonna start selling like, "School of Rock" ponchos for the front row.
Do you end up getting dehydrated due to the volume of spit that is lost?
I get dehydrated, hungry — I think the factoid now is I lose about 6000 calories every performance, and that's close to two pounds. So I'm constantly drinking water throughout the show and after the show. And I also don't eat after the show because I have acid reflux. So I'm wasting away. I'm gonna make my own DVD that shows everyone how to do my role, and in that role you can lose five sizes off your waist.
[Laughter.] Where were you in your career when you heard about this show, and how did you get in the door?
I got asked to do a table read, and one of the first details I heard was that Andrew Lloyd Webber was going to be writing the music, and that Julian Fellowes was going to write the book. I said to myself — and I'll never forget this and I'm thrilled to say it now because it's after the fact — I was like, That sounds like a horrible idea.
When you think of "School of Rock" and Jack Black and sort of the anarchic nature of the entire movie and story, you don't think of the man that wrote "Downton Abbey."
Or the man that wrote "Phantom of the Opera."
I'm thrilled to say now that I couldn't think of a better person to write the score than Andrew, and I couldn't think of a better person to write the structure of this script than Julian. They just know structure. And Andrew is a proper rock guy. His favorite bands are AC/DC and he loves Metallica and Megadeth. So he's the right guy.
When you were trying out for this role, what was the dynamic in terms of whether or not you were going up against big names?
I knew from the jump that I was not an obvious choice for the role, simply because I looked super childlike. I didn't have "the look." So when I went in, I figured I would end up the understudy or just in the ensemble if I was lucky, because I fit the vibe of the show. So when I started to become more in contention for the role, I knew I had an opportunity to make this role my own. So I sort of came in and did my own Dewey in the style of sort of W.C. Fields meets Walter Matthau meets a 29-year-old. A guy that just hates children and is forced to be in a situation that is completely unmanageable, and tries to manage through it.
Was part of that process also trying to put as much of Jack Black out of your mind as possible?
I actually didn't stay away from the movie. I've seen it a bunch of times because it's a great movie and I don't want to deprive myself in this lifetime of not seeing a movie when I want to watch it. I just can't do a Jack Black impression. I think there are moments in the show where we're similar, but that's easy to make the connection because you know the movie. But I also think we have to honor the performance that he created. So there are tips of the cap to him throughout the show that are not supposed to be mimic, but more of an homage.
A lot of your performance is physically exhausting, and there's a lot of demand on your voice. If we were to visit you back stage maybe 10 minutes before places, what would we see you doing? What are your rituals?
Alright. I listen to standup comedy, from half-hour to the performance. I like to hear comedians of all types, and hear the cadences and all that. So that's one thing. I will run in place because I've got to get my blood pumping. The very first number I do is the hardest one in the show. I'll stretch, I'll do some vocal exercises but not too much because I sing for two hours of the show. And that's about it. I walk around in my underwear a lot. I visit other people's dressing rooms.
In your underwear?
In my underwear. Yup. You know, I'm very free and all that. I will talk to Sierra Boggess, who plays Miss Mullins. We have a little pre-show ritual where we'll just talk about our day. It's kind of nice. It's low maintenance.
The role requires you to play guitar, and you're playing opposite some very talented young musicians. Did you have to step up your own guitar playing so you wouldn't get blown off the stage by these middle schoolers next to you?
I have to wear, like, shoes with glue on them so I don't get blown off the stage. I'm still not even close to what these kids are able to do. I'm dead serious. I will never be as good as these kids. I was in guitar lessons for months before we opened, and I was in the rehearsal process. I played guitar off and on for like 10 years, self-taught. Over the last couple of months I've learned theory and I've learned how to solo. That's just been a cool added perk. But as much as I step my game up, I'll never be as close as these kids.
In terms of this show and the success that you've enjoyed, what does it mean going forward in terms of the kinds of things you're now getting offered, that to you would have been unthinkable a year and a half ago?
I hate using this cliche, but it's been a dream come true. First of all, I get to do two hours of everything I've ever wanted to do on a stage at once. But then, there are just other things coming my way now, whether it's TV or film or other offers, that I would have never been afforded. Also, because I'm a writer, I'm getting to show my writing to people who I guess otherwise wouldn't really take notice. So it's been really cool. There's no other word to use.
What are you writing? TV shows, film scripts? What are the other things you want to do outside of theater?
You know, I've never written for myself until recently. But because of "School of Rock," I've been guided in the way of managers and agents that have said, You should start writing with the idea of you in the center of it. So I'm just starting now to develop a couple of pilots with me in them. But mainly I write books for musicals. I'm working on a musical right now — we just got a commission from Universal Theatrical. And we're doing an adaptation of "It's Kind of a Funny Story."
And then I'm working on a book and lyrics with, again, my writing partner Drew Gasparini, on a novel called "The Whipping Boy." It's a Newbery Award-winning novel that we're going to turn into a very whimsical, humongous stage musical. And then other than that, I have a first draft of a play that I'm trying to finish about a suicide pact.
It sounds like there are more hours in your day than there are in mine.
[Laughter.] Well I got to this point in my life where days off are cool, but I hate being bored. So I like to earn my days off. If I'm just sitting on a couch, I don't feel like that's a worthwhile day to me. I like spinning plates.
"School of Rock" is now playing on Broadway.