Music class heroes

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We need more support for young performers like the stars of School of Rock

When Ninette de Valois, the august founder of the Royal Ballet, was 13 years old, she was one of Lila Field’s Wonder Children, a group of child actors who enjoyed considerable success performing variety shows in the West End and across the country. Noël Coward was another alumnus.

I thought about those wonder children when I met their 21st-century successors, the child performers in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical School of Rock, which has just opened to rave reviews and ecstatic audiences. They play children whose lives are transformed when a failed rocker takes a job as their supply teacher — and turns them into a rock group. We see on stage a reflection of exactly the life-changing process the musical describes: a group of talented children revealing their skill and commitment as they become part of a band, and spreading good cheer and exuberant inspiration as they do so.

British child-labour laws required the recruitment of three rotating casts, aged between 9 and 13: a total of 39 children. Lloyd Webber feared that finding so many youngsters who could not only sing, dance and act, but play music live, would be difficult. “What took me completely by surprise was the extent to which they were playing real musical instruments,” he says. “I mistakenly thought our kids were much more into programming music on computers. It was exciting to discover I was wrong.”

What Lloyd Webber and his auditioning team have tapped into is a double youth constituency: the youngsters playing music in their bedrooms and dreaming of rock fame, and the huge nexus of Saturday-school and part-time stage-school kids who dream of a career in musical theatre.

Tom Abisgold, 12, from Cheshire (who plays the lead guitarist, Zack), took up guitar at the age of six, inspired by a McFly concert. “I know it’s not the coolest, but I was determined to be like them when I was older.” He practised for a minimum of two hours a day and was dreaming of finding a band to play with when he came across the advertisement for School of Rock auditions online. He is making his stage debut.

Also 12 is Noah Key, from Shropshire, who has a more traditional musical-theatre background. His parents have appeared in musicals and he was inspired by watching their shows. He is something of a veteran, coming up through the Key Theatre Academy and the Sylvia Young Agency, and landing parts in Les Misérables, The Sound of Music UK tour and Elf. He learnt to play the drums to audition as Freddy. “I thought drums would be cool because you get to hit things,” he laughs.

I thought drums would be cool because you get to hit things

The film of School of Rock provided a valuable recruiting ground for James Lawson, 12, who has played keyboard since his actress aunt gave him an instrument five years ago. He is making his stage debut as Lawrence. “It was my favourite movie, so I just wanted to be in it.” Seeing the RSC’s Matilda made him want to appear on stage. “It’s just the adrenaline of everyone watching you.”

For Lois Jenkins, 11, from London, being in a rock band at Blackheath High School inspired her to audition. She plays the drums, but that part was reserved for a boy, so she used her experience on cello to learn the bass. She is tiny, and the bass guitar is huge, but the experience is thrilling. “I think I want to carry on. I’m really enjoying it.”

Despite being 11, 10 and 9 respectively, Amelia Poggenpoel, Natasha Raphael and Adithi Sujith already have agents and casting contacts. They are essentially singers, and are passionate about musicals.

All these performers have been nurtured by the network of part-time singing, acting and dancing classes that spread across the country. My own children attended weekend classes and summer schools, for fun and because it boosted their confidence and their interest in music. Others can forge a stage career.

Jessica Ronane, the children’s casting director, who also finds youngsters to star in Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, says she has noticed a huge change in the landscape since she was casting the stage version of Billy Elliot with Stephen Daldry in 2005. “Back then, we drove around every drama club in the northeast,” she says. “And there was still a stigma, particularly for boys, about wanting to appear on stage, singing and dancing. Now it isn’t so embarrassing, and kids who are interested can find out where we are via the internet. The kids in School of Rock have come from a variety of sources — one was an internet sensation as a guitarist. Social media has made a huge difference. We’re a few clicks away from kids all over the country.”

The one disincentive for talented children from poorer backgrounds is the cost of even basic training. Although the weekend school network is extensive, with classes costing about £10 a session, it is still an impossible aspiration for families with no spare income. Indeed, Ronane points out, the costs are rising as drama schools battle to get the best teachers and offer the best opportunities for professional work, though many offer bursaries. There are also effective outreach programmes for those who are less privileged.

Yet against this background of children doing exactly what politicians always say they want them to do — being active, engaging with their abilities, not lying on their beds and becoming disaffected — access to the arts, and the way they are taught in schools, have never been under greater threat.

It is something Lloyd Webber feels passionate about. He has made School of Rock freely available to schools and colleges, to encourage live performance. And, through the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, he has channelled £2.8m into secondary schools, giving 4,000 children free instruments and music tuition. The foundation also awards scholarships and bursaries.

“It’s not just about them becoming musicians, though some will,” he says. “I believe the arts, and music in particular, are such a force for good. I feel strongly that there has never been a time when arts education in schools has been more important, with what’s going on in the world. Arts empower and are apolitical. They can free children to discover themselves and their talents in many, many different directions.”

He points out that when he was the same age as the young performers in School of Rock, the Saturday-morning classes at the Royal College of Music were free. “It concerns me that the cost of becoming educated in an area where you can show your talent is becoming so high. We have such a strong theatrical tradition in this country — we have to address this.”

Lloyd Webber sits in the House of Lords and uses his influence to lobby on behalf of arts education. But his opinion of the way the political classes view the arts is not high. Why is there not more awareness of all those children who spend their free time pursuing the performing arts?

“I think it’s the politicians who live in a square mile of Westminster and never seem to appreciate what is going on outside it. If you are chancellor of the exchequer, you are counting every penny, but what they don’t see — because they can’t quantify it — is that every penny they spend on the arts comes back to the exchequer 10 times over. I can only say I think people are blinkered. I really don’t get it.”

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