School Of Rock musical makes a new Broadway star

Actor Alex Brightman (centre) has turned the School Of Rock musical comedy on Broadway into his personal stairway to heaven.
Actor Alex Brightman (centre) has turned the School Of Rock musical comedy on Broadway into his personal stairway to heaven.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • What kinds of backstage pleasures does a newly minted heavy metal star enjoy these days?

At the Winter Garden Theater, Alex Brightman, lead actor of Broadway's School Of Rock, has furnished his diminutive dressing room with such not-so-hedonistic gratifications as a steam inhaler mask, tasteful throw pillows and a collection of year-end award- season movies on DVD.

Even the colourful contents of his pill case are not nearly as illicit as they might seem: "They're all vitamins," Brightman said recently as he gulped down a bitter handful. "It's all to make me superhuman on the inside."

Brightman, 28, who has cultivated a burly, bearded, Belushi-esque look for School Of Rock, hardly fits the stereotype of a preening, Spandex-clad guitar god.

But he has nonetheless turned this musical, which is based on the 2003 Jack Black comedy and opened last month, into his personal stairway to heaven.

In a production whose creative team includes composer and producer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and whose cast is populated with precocious tween-age musicians, Brightman, a steadily employed if relatively unknown Broadway performer, could have been easily overshadowed.

Instead, playing Dewey Finn, a loutish but lovable charlatan who inspires a class of overscheduled students, he has found his signature role.

Reviewing School Of Rock for The New York Times, Ben Brantley wrote that Brightman delivers "a performance as notable for its generosity as its virtuosity", praising his enthusiasm and adding, "The kids warm to him because that passion feels so authentic it's infectious".

Brightman, who wore a Metallica T-shirt and shorts to a late afternoon lunch at a Broadway diner, is trying to stay humble in the face of success.

"I was not always the masterpiece you see eating in front of you," he said self-deprecatingly as he tucked into a high-calorie meal. "This Adonis that lots of corned-beef hash has gone to."

Still, he has an intensity that comes with the years of hard work that preceded his breakthrough, and he makes no apologies for the brashness that helped win him the part.

"This is who I am when I talk to my agent," he said. "This is who I am when I talk to my accountant. I'm open and friendly and a little childish. If nothing else, I've taken the restrictor plate off years ago."

Growing up in Saratoga, California, in the Bay Area, where his father founded Apple Computer's Worldwide Disabilities Solutions Group and his mother helped run a kidney dialysis clinic, he performed in community theatre and an improvisation group at the Jesuit preparatory school he attended.

In 2007, he dropped out of the CAP21 musical theatre conservatory programme at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

"My last thought when I left," he said, "was they're not qualified to teach me." That same year, he was cast in the first Los Angeles production of The History Boys at the Ahmanson Theater, and embarked on a peripatetic theatre career.

His Broadway debut, technically, occurred in Glory Days, the ill-fated 2008 musical that closed after its opening night. For two further years, he played the Munchkin Boq in Wicked, a steady gig that taught him "the big difference between being good at your job and being passionate about your job".

Feeling that some other cast members were not fully invested in their roles, he said, "I started to go: 'Oh my God, that person is just collecting a paycheck and is slowly withering to death. I never want to be that.'"

"I called a couple people, like, 'Am I being crazy here?'" he added. "They're like, 'No, you just hold people to a very high standard.'"

When he said the producers of Wicked offered him another extension, he told them, "in so many words, I'd rather kill myself - but I did it kindly and left".

A skinny, clean-shaven Brightman was playing the title character's dim-witted brother in Matilda last year when he was asked to participate in an early reading of School Of Rock. Though he read only for minor roles (including a down- hearted keyboardist in the student band), Laurence Connor, the show's director, began to see him as a possible Dewey.

"He became my yardstick that you judge everybody by," said Connor, who began advocating him to Lloyd Webber.

The composer said that a few "more well-known names" were also seen for the role (neither he nor Connor named them), but that Brightman "felt like a big kid, like he was one of the gang".

"The other ones all felt a little bit like an adult," Lloyd Webber explained. "You say to yourself, 'Do I really want to leave my kids with that guy?' Whereas with Alex, he just is a child, and you thought he was perfect."

Now that School Of Rock is shaping up to be a hit - it grossed more than US$1.5 million (S$2.1 million) for the week ending Dec 27, according to the Broadway League - its creators say the challenge ahead for Brightman is not simply to maintain the frenzied energy he brings over an eight-show week. He also needs to stay grounded, they say, and set a good example for its youthful cast.

As the conversation continued, and Brightman contemplated the prominent place he now occupies in the musical-theatre industry he always wanted to be part of, he became more serious.

"No one woke up a year ago and said, 'We have to give Alex Brightman this job,'" he explained.

Speaking for himself and his acting peers, he said: "We have to keep remembering that we chose to be here. We have to really want to be here."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'School Of Rock musical makes a new Broadway star'. Print Edition | Subscribe