Michael Coveney: who on earth can play Dewey if Alex Brightman doesn't?

Critic Michael Coveney reports back from New York on ”School of Rock”, ”Hamilton” and Al Pacino

Alex Brightman and the kids of School of Rock - The Musical
Alex Brightman and the kids of School of Rock – The Musical
© Matthew Murphy

With Andrew Lloyd Webber's School of Rock, which opened in New York this week, already announced for the Palladium next year, the question is: who on earth can play Dewey the plump rock god if Alex Brightman doesn't? Brightman's as good, and as funny, as Jack Black in the movie, so the quest will be for someone who looks like James Corden, clowns like James Corden and sings like Meatloaf.

No-one springs to mind — unless Killian Donnelly starts slobbing out right now — any more than you can now envisage anyone but Cynthia Erivo playing Celie in The Color Purple, which opens on Broadway at the Jacobs Theatre tonight. She's heading up John Doyle's Menier Chocolate Factory production alongside Jennifer Hudson, and at Monday night's press preview the audience went completely bonkers and were on their feet twice even before we were anywhere near the curtain call.

The heaviest advance booking in New York, though, remains for In the Heights author Lin-Manuel Miranda's new musical Hamilton which is as brilliant as it is utterly game-changing, telling the story of the Founding Fathers — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the remarkable Alexander Hamilton (played by Miranda) with a cast of actors fitted out in period frocks, and frock coats, and tight white underclothes, on board what looks like the ship of the new American nation in dry dock, ready to sail.

If it comes to London, do your homework, or read Ron Chernow's acclaimed biography of Hamilton which Miranda acknowledges as his starting point. The score makes In the Heights look like kids' stuff, paralleling the birth of a nation with an assimilation, after raw rap and hip-hop, of other American musical styles, even Broadway musicals, so that the processes of cultural and political evolution go hand in hand. Amazing.

Blazingly unpredictable, but eminently watchable, as always, Al Pacino is struggling a bit in the early days of David Mamet's China Doll; what looks like an ear-piece is in fact a phone-piece through which he conducts a virtual monologue — he's a besieged mogul and political fixer — with his girlfriend, a plane hire company, tax officials and crooked associates.

I saw Pacino arriving for his Sunday matinee at the Schoenfeld Theatre bunny-hopping across 45th Street in a floor-length black cloak and hood. He looked like a mad medieval monk and reminded me of Alan Bennett's line about T E Lawrence hoping to pass unnoticed in Trafalgar Square while sat on his motorbike attired in full Arab robes, resembling an unmade Bedouin.

The Gerald Schoenfeld, recently re-named, is next door to the Bernard B Jacobs (home to The Color Purple). Thus Broadway has honoured the two lawyers who transformed the Shubert Organisation, and its fortunes, in the early 1970s with shows like A Chorus Line and then Lloyd Webber/Cameron Mackintosh shot in the arm with Cats and Phantom.

The full story of what amounts to Broadway's salvation and re-launch — for better or worse — is told in a wonderful new book, Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, by New York post columnist Michael Riedel. This operation was musicals-led. It is interesting that the West End is undergoing a more drama-led sea-change with the companies of Michael Grandage, Jamie Lloyd, Kenneth Branagh and the two Nicks, Hytner and Starr.

Brian Friel, the great Irish playwright who died in October, had a special relationship with New York. His first success, Philadelphia, Here I Come, was a Broadway hit in 1965 and the last production of Translations, one of his three masterpieces (the others are The Faith Healer and Dancing at Lughnasa) was given on the very stage, the Samuel J Friedman, where the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Irish Repertory Theatre held a wonderful memorial on Monday afternoon, with readings and superb eulogies from actor Gabriel Byrne, director Joe Dowling and poet Paul Muldoon.

The show everyone loves but nobody you know talks about is Something Rotten! at the St James, scene of my favourite ever theatre film (apart from All About Eve), Birdman. It's the most hilarious Shakespeare spoof featuring Nostradamus, "Omelette, the musical," a Shakespeare in the Park concert by the Swan of Avon in a large leather cod-piece ("It's hard to be the bard") with his four gentlemen of Verona, and a brilliant cast led by Brian d' Arcy James and John Cariani as Nick and Nigel Bottom. It's directed by Book of Mormon director Casey Nicholaw and is – I'm right with legendary Rex Reed of the New York Observer on this — far funnier than the Mormon mega-hit.