Why School of Rock is ‘Sticking It To The Licensing Man’!

Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been one to play by the rules. Phantom of the Opera combined traditional musical theatre with opera and rock songs to create a new fusion genre. Cats took a completely different approach to the idea of musical storytelling. And now his latest effort, School of Rock, is breaking the rules of licensing.

School of Rock

School of Rock is slowly becoming renowned as a musical which ignores convention. First, it announced that the official cast album would be released two days before the production opened (a stage which usually comes years down the line once a production has closed). And now Andrew Lloyd Webber has announced plans to grant performance rights to School of Rock in the USA and Canada before the production has its Broadway premiere.

Granting performance rights to a production presents some interesting issues for two reasons. Quality and quantity. Let’s start with quality . . .

There are enormously tight controls on professional productions to ensure a consistent audience experience building a truly global brand. For example, wherever you see Wicked it can be guaranteed that you will have the same experience. Everything from big picture elements such as the storyline right down to the performers’ own riffs are carefully controlled for consistency with any changes being approved by the powers-that-be who own the rights to the production. And there is good reason for these controls. It ensures that the Wicked brand isn’t tarnished by a sub-standard production. But what about quantity . . .

While there is a certain number of times that a potential consumer needs to see a message for it to register in their brain, the opposite is also true. There is only a certain number of times that this potential customer should be confronted with the same stimulus or they start to block it out and don’t take any notice of it. It is the same with productions. If every man and their dog decided to put on a production of Cats, then audiences would get to a point where they never want to hear about another production again and when a professional production rolls into town, potential audiences are completely worn out by the sight of Cats everywhere that they won’t purchase tickets.

There is no argument that these are both good reasons to keep control over licensing rights. But School of Rock’s convention-defying efforts could prove more fruitful than these controls.

The show will be open for performance right applications with successful productions receiving all the material in January 2016 (after a December 2015 opening on Broadway). And the reasoning behind this decision? Andrew Lloyd Webber made the following statement: ‘This musical is entirely about empowering kids to rock out, so what better way to herald its arrival and celebrate its themes than to allow youth performances from coast to coast. This will allow young fans to engage with the material in a much deeper way, and we think will only heighten enthusiasm for our Broadway premiere!’

With the current behaviour of theatre-going audiences under the microscope, this seems like a rather clever move. Audiences are very resistant to take a gamble with their entertainment – especially with the current cost of tickets – and are much more likely to see something which they are sure they will enjoy whether this is a familiar musical, a familiar starring actor or a show featuring familiar songs. Well, releasing the rights early means that this new musical could very quickly become a familiar bet for people visiting the Great White Way. If it gets enough traction, it will reach out to families of America through school productions (not surprisingly also the main demographic School of Rock will be aiming to attract) and when they take a holiday to New York . . . I would gamble that they would be willing to try out this familiar new show.