Andrew Lloyd Webber is not a man who makes it easy on his performers.
Whether it's Jesus Christ Superstar, Starlight Express or Phantom of the Opera, his musicals contain some of Broadway biggest ballads and highest concepts. It's surprising then that his latest creation may be his most demanding yet.
"There's no bigger role in the music theatre canon," says School of Rock lead Joe Kosky. "You wouldn't think such a light-hearted comedic show would hold a role that is more challenging than anything I could have dreamt it. It's a three-hour sweat fest."
It's an intensity we have come to expect from Lloyd Webber, but perhaps not from a musical based on a 2004 Jack Black film with a book written by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes. Yet when School of Rock hits Auckland's Civic Theatre, audiences can expect to get their money's worth. With 29 musical numbers, it's easy to see why it's so taxing.
"They are all ridiculously high-energy high-octane rock numbers," Kosky says. "Once you start, you just don't stop, you keep going."
The one plus for New Zealand-born Kosky, who shares the role of Dewey Finn with Brent Hill, is that he splits that intensity with his co-stars; the difference to your average Broadway show is that those co-stars are 36 uber-talented child stars.
"It's really taxing but so rewarding," Kosky says of working opposite the rotating ensemble. "The kids give you so much energy, so while the energy output is higher than I would expected, the energy input is more than I anticipated."
The story sees aspiring rocker but all-round slacker Dewey Finn impersonate his relief teacher roommate to make a quick buck but he learns the students at the prestigious elementary school he's teaching at are all musically gifted – talents he seeks to exploit. Kosky says it doesn't make Dewey the kindest of lead characters at first but the influence of the children creates a more well-rounded and relatable character by the end.
Amy Lehpamer, who stars as the school's headmistress Rosalie, says the story is not just for kids.
"Dewey is not playing down to the kids in anyway, he is a three-dimensional loser. He's got adult problems, he doesn't have kid problems, and then he's faced with these children and has a learning curve through them."
Resident director Leah Howard describes Dewey as the "everyday bloke" and says his emotional journey resonates with wider audiences: "Dewey could be anybody. You watch the evolution of him from being someone who doesn't want to get out of bed to someone who has just opens his heart."
The role of Dewey, originated by Jack Black, is still fondly remembered though Kosky says he's plays it softer than Black.
"Otherwise it's just a big scary man yelling at kids and no one wants to watch that for three hours."
But the show's creatives have maintained Black's appearance. While most musicals feature chiselled, sculpted leading men, Dewey has an overgrown beard, scruffy hair and an average body size. It's one of the elements that attracted Kosky who says Dewey is an atypical character but a welcome change that better reflects reality – and one he hopes will become more of the Broadway norm.
"It's so important for children of all different shapes and sizes and genders and sexual preferences to see someone that reflects them onstage," he says. "Art reflects life and life does reflect art, and it's our duty as artists to be providing those role models for children to grow into so they don't feel like they have to be pigeonholed into either Prince Charming or Quasimodo, it's more diverse than that."
Diversity and inclusivity are key factors in School of Rock, alongside the importance it places on music. Lehpamer says it shows how music is universal and how easily it can change a person's life.
"It also doesn't have to be elite, and that's how it's painted by so many people. They say it's for other people, but you wouldn't say that to a kid when they're kicking a ball. Music makes us feel good; it stimulates a feeling in all of us."
Kosky has the same takeaway from his time on the show. He says working in the industry can turn a passion into discipline and routine, but School of Rock has reminded him of the joys of music.
"When you love music, there's a life force in you that you need to share. I think that's been an amazing part about doing this show, rediscovering that again and living out my childhood dreams," he says. "I can absolutely relate to Dewey as I wanted to be a rock star for so long and now it's kind of like that. I could have never dreamt up a better job."
What: School of Rock
Where & when: Civic Theatre, September 3 – 29.