Interview with School of Rock scribe Julian Fellowes
Tony nominee Julian Fellowes is currently represented on Broadway for writing the book of School of Rock - The Musical, which also features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Glenn Slater.
He also wrote the book for Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's stage adaptation of Mary Poppins, and has a number of other musicals in the pipeline. On screen, he has found global fame as the creator and sole writer of the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning TV series Downton Abbey, as well as his Oscar-winning work writing Gosford Park.
Julian kindly took time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the ongoing success of School of Rock, as well as both his theatrical past and future...
Thomas Hayden Millward: Firstly, congratulations are in order! You have won Oscars and Emmys before, but this is your first-ever Tony nomination. You must be thrilled?
Julian Fellowes: Oh, I’m absolutely delighted! I was taken completely by surprise because there are so many good shows on at the moment on Broadway and it didn’t occur to me that it would happen, so yes, it was very exciting and very surprising.
THM: So, how did you first become involved with ‘School of Rock’?
JF: That was completely Andrew [Lloyd Webber]. Andrew had the idea and bought the rights to adapt the film and he then came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. Of course, I was a surprising choice, in a way, for a rock musical! (Laughs) But anyway, the collaboration seems to have worked. It was a very fun job to be involved with because we all got on very well. Laurence Connor was the director, Glenn Slater was the lyricist and then, obviously, Andrew composed the music and I wrote the book. The four of us got on very well. We’re all quite alike and had great chemistry, so it was a very nice job actually, and I’ve got no sad tales to tell. And I do think we assembled a fantastic cast. Really marvelous!
THM: Oh yes, Alex Brightman is a superstar in the lead role of Dewey, and I don’t know where you found those kids, but they are the most talented bunch I have ever seen on stage!
JF: I know! And they have those huge instruments. Some of the children are smaller than the instruments they are playing and visually, that’s just so fabulous! And Alex is like an extraordinary powerhouse.
THM: Tell us a little bit about the creative process of working with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Did he dictate where the musical numbers should go or when you were writing the book, did you write instructions such as "Insert rock song here"?
JF: Yes, Andrew completely dictated the musical side of it. But it was my job to write a book that would slightly open the story up to a broader audience. I mean, I loved the film. I don’t think anything I say should be taken as critical because I am a big fan of the film. But the audience for a Broadway musical is slightly different from that of a movie or a slightly niche movie. So that was partly my job. In some instances, I would guess where the songs were going to come, but not in every instance actually. Then Andrew would read the script with Laurence and they would say: “No, we’re going to do this instead. This is where that number should come and not there,” and so on. Gradually you have this kind of emerging shape. It’s rather like with the lyrics, I would write a scene and then Glenn would write a lyric for a song in that scene and in his choices, he would obviate some of the dialogue and so that would be removed because essentially that part of the narrative has now gone into the song. It’s all very collaborative. It goes back and forth, back and forth until all of those different departments are happy.
THM: And I’m sure those departments were more than happy with the extremely positive reviews the show has received on Broadway. What do you think is the key to its success in New York?
JF: Oh, I don’t know if I can answer that because if I did know the answer, I would never write anything but hits! (Laughs)
THM: Well, you are tending to do exactly that at the moment, if I may say so?
JF: (Laughs) Well, of course, everyone has their down moments, but the trick in show business is to cover them up and kick them into the undergrowth as quickly as possible! (Laughs)
THM: So, if I can take you down Memory Lane now, Julian. Your first foray into writing for mainstream theatre was the musical adaptation of ‘Mary Poppins.’ How did you go from winning the Oscar for “Gosford Park” to turning your attention to the theatre?
JF: I think I was very lucky there. What had happened was when Disney bought the rights to P.L. Travers’ books, they didn’t bother to buy the stage rights because in those days in the late 1950s, Disney didn’t produce stage shows. When they began to put on stage shows, of course the theatre rights had been sold long before. Eventually they came into the hands of Cameron Mackintosh – the great empresario. But Cameron’s instinct was that he had to have the songs from the Disney film in the stage musical, so there was a long stand-off where Cameron had the rights to the show, but Disney had the rights to the songs. Eventually a chap called Tom Schumacher came up through Disney and he and Cameron came to an agreement for Disney Theatrical to have its first co-production in the company’s history and that was ‘Mary Poppins.’ They settled it in 2002, just one month after I had won the Oscar for writing the script about a house with English servants. So there was a certain amount of lucky timing. I was in the news and I had just written something of a similar era, so I became a likely choice for something like ‘Mary Poppins.’ To be honest, I think if they had settled it six months before, you would now be talking to Tom Stoppard.
THM: And the show is still running now on a huge UK tour! And you’re also busy working with the great musical theatre duo of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
JF: Yes! We’ve got a new version of ‘Half a Sixpence,’ which opens this summer at Chichester and ‘The Wind in the Willows’ following that in the autumn. Writing the book for musicals seems to have become one of the strings to my bow, really when I wasn’t looking.
THM: Tell us about ‘The Wind in the Willows’ project. Is it a direct adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s novel or is it an original story using those familiar characters?
JF: Well, it’s an adaptation of the book. Essentially the book is in the form of short stories – rather like ‘Mary Poppins’ – so I had to take what is episodic work and turn it into a stand-alone story, which I hope I’ve managed to do. But it is Kenneth Grahame’s ‘The Wind in the Willows.’ It’s not anyone else’s.
THM: And what’s the premise of this version of ‘Half a Sixpence’?
JF: ‘Half a Sixpence’ is based on the H.G. Wells novel “Kipps”. It was originally done in the 1960s for Tommy Steele. It was very much designed as a star vehicle for him and was immensely successful. This version is not really a star vehicle in that sense. It’s not built around a star. It’s closer to the novel really. I never want to talk as if I think I’m improving everything, it’s just different. It’s got a different balance and it’s closer to H.G. Wells’ novel.
THM: And do you see a future in the West End for these two musicals?
JF: I certainly hope so! It’s not for me to make those decisions, of course, because I’m not the one who has to set it all up. But I hope ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘Half a Sixpence’ both come in.
THM: I’ve also heard rumblings of a ‘Downton Abbey’ stage adaptation. What’s all that about?
JF: Yes! I don’t really know. There are rumblings of a ‘Downton Abbey’ film. There’s rumblings of ‘Downton Abbey’ on stage and there’s rumblings of a ‘Downton Abbey’ musical! The extent to which all or any of these will see the light of day is anyone’s guess really.
THM: So you haven’t put pen to paper, as it were?
JF: Oh no… Not yet.
THM: And finally, what is the latest status on the West End transfer of ‘School of Rock’?
JF: There are certainly plans for it. You’d have to call the Really Useful Group to find out what they say about it, but it’s definitely on the cards that it will come to London. Of course, it’s more complicated in London because we’ll have to have three completely different casts of children because we have different laws to the American ones, which are more sympathetic to shows including children. But I am sure it will come to London.
THM: And hopefully prove as popular as it has done with Broadway audiences.
JF: Well, we can only ever do our best. I hope so because I think it’s a good show and I really enjoyed watching it. I saw it many, many times, obviously, before I came back from New York, after we opened. I thought it was a great evening out. It was a real feel-good evening. I like it when people come out of my shows happier than when they went in.