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Perfecting the Sound of 'School of Rock'

Date: Nov 17, 2015

Ethan Popp keeps this Broadway musical sounding righteous


Twenty years ago, Ethan Popp landed his first job as a music director at a regional theatre, working on Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Now, he's collaborating closely with that show's composer, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, on the Broadway musical adaptation of School of Rock.

For those who need a refresher: Originally a cheeky 2003 film, School of Rock is about a shiftless-but-charming musician who cons his way into a job teaching at a prestigious prep school. Soon enough, he transforms a group of awkward kids into a shredding rock band, proving that everyone has an arena god inside them just waiting to get out.

Working with Webber, Popp feels like he's having a rock star experience himself. "This is absolutely one of the most mind-blowing experiences I've ever had," he says, chatting after a recent preview performance of the show at the Winter Garden (it officially opens on December 6). "To be in meetings with [Webber], rehearsals with him, work sessions with him—it's been a little bit like an out-of-body experience."

Webber – whose music is joined by Glenn Slater's lyrics and Julian Fellowes' book – also serves as orchestrator. However, daily maintenance of the production's musicianship falls to Popp as music supervisor. In addition to ironing out harmonies and vocal parts with star Alex Brightman and the child actors (who both sing and play instruments), he serves as Webber's ears.


"My role is essentially to execute Andrew's vision of the show," he says. "Being the intermediary for Andrew and the audio department, and just to make sure that the music vision has been truly brought to life."

That entails everything from making sure every harmony is in tune to ensuring that the rock and roll vowels (so different from musical theatre vowels) are correct, particularly when it comes to diphthongs, usually treated "purely" in musical theater but rarely so in rock music.

"In a lot of rock and pop music, diphthongs are thrown aside for cheated vowel sounds that simplify the diphthong into a singular sound," Popp says. "A word as simple as 'I' (AH-ee) may be simplified to 'ah.' The sound of a 'long E' (EE) can be particularly difficult to sing in a higher register due to the physiology involved: the soft palate of the roof of the mouth moves downward and the tongue recedes towards the back of the throat, restricting air flow and causing tension in the neck. Whether the evolution of such cheated sounds was conscious or unconscious, it's absolutely become commonplace for how we hear
much of the popular music that has been present over the last 60 years."

Plus, Popp is listening to what the sound department is doing, how the acoustic music choices are playing, and debating whether to move chords. "My ears are spread pretty thin throughout the night, but I've always absolutely loved doing it!"

He especially enjoys working with the young performers, who have essentially become a rock band. "It's been such a cool experience to sit down with them from early days and just have jam sessions," he says. "Certainly there's been a lot of material from the show that they've had to learn, but we've also had them play some rock and roll covers that don't exist in the show."

And though Popp needs his 20-minute train ride home at the end of the day to recover from listening so closely to so many aspects of the score, he has nevertheless found himself keeping the party going after the show with his huge vinyl collection. "Because the lead character is rooted in 70s rock, it inspired me to come home and night and put on a lot of these albums and just be able to rock out every night."


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Photos by Timmy Blupe. Top photo: Alex Brightman (center) and cast.