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Road to the Tonys: The Life of a Kid Actor at ‘School of Rock’

It’s tough being a Broadway actor around Tony time. You’ve got eight shows a week, of course, but you’ve also got rehearsals for the Tony Awards ceremony to slot into your schedule. Plus you’ve got press duties for your show’s Tony campaign, and while you’re at it, you’ll have to juggle any additional daytime rehearsals you might have for new actors joining the show.

Oh, and you’ve got homework, too. And you’re only 11.

Welcome to the day-to-day of a kid actor on Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of Rock,” nominated for four Tonys including new musical, is the standard-bearer for young performers this season, with a cast of about 18 kids, some of whom play their own instruments onstage. The production is just the latest in a series of successful Broadway shows that have seen a wealth of child actors take on increasingly challenging roles.

The precursor was “Billy Elliot,” the 2008 Broadway transfer of the London hit that tapped three young actors to alternate in a demanding title role. The trio won a shared Tony for their efforts. Then in 2013 came “Matilda,” in which four actresses, as young as nine years old, switch off in that show’s title part, earning the original quartet their own shared Tony. In 2015, “Fun Home” brought to Broadway another sizeable role for a young performer: the youngest incarnation of the protagonist, who sings one of the musical’s signature tunes. Tony-nominated Sydney Lucas performed that tune, “Ring of Kings,” solo on the Tonys last year.

All that youthful activity comes in addition to the young actors who are part of productions including “The Lion King,” “Kinky Boots” and “The King and I,” among others. “With shows like ‘Matilda,’ people started to realize that kids could handle a lot of responsibility,” said Jamie Pillet, a New York-based talent agent in Abrams Artists’ youth division. “It’s no longer that kids are furniture.”

“They’re so good, these kids, you could throw anything at them with a bit of rehearsal,” noted Lloyd Webber, the composer-producer of “School of Rock.” “The kids we’ve got at the moment, they could back anybody in the country.”

But Broadway work for young actors comes with a hefty share of challenges and concerns — both for the production itself, and for the families of these young triple-threats.

For producers, a show with young actors requires additional, ongoing infrastructure to meet kids’ needs. During a production’s rehearsal period, tutors must be hired to keep the youngsters’ education going, and then there are the child wranglers — “School of Rock” has four — who act as guardians from the moment a child steps through the stage door.

A wrangler’s job is to shepherd young actors from warmup to dressing room to backstage to onstage, making sure they’re always in the right place at the right time. “We sort of fill in the gray areas of where everybody else’s jobs end,” said Jill Valentine, the head guardian at “School of Rock.” Guardians take away kids’ cell phones half an hour before curtain, in order to ensure total focus, but more traditional games are allowed to proliferate backstage. “Monopoly is huge right now,” Valentine said.

For producers, there’s also an increased level of turnover to contend with. As kids grow, they age out of the roles they were perfect for six months ago, which means productions must engage in an ongoing recruitment process. “School of Rock” does it in part through open auditions, the first of which, held Feb. 26 at the Winter Garden Theater, brought out a parade of young performers, many of whom picked up a guitar or got behind the drum set to show off their skills onstage. They faced a half-dozen adults sitting behind a table, doing their best to be as welcoming and friendly as possibly.

Of course, the auditions are just the beginning. Once a kid gets the job, the Broadway schedule can throw a family into upheaval.

Take Bobbi MacKenzie, who plays Tomika in “School of Rock.” Mackenzie’s father, Astor Chambers, quit his job as a Nike marketing executive to live with his daughter in New York City. His wife and two other daughters remain in Portland, Ore., where his wife is a radio personality.

We knew this was a sacrifice that had to be made,” Chambers said. “It’s very tough to even think about having a traditional job.” In addition to father, he’s also playing the part-time role of teacher, coordinating Mackenzie’s education through online schooling.

For a number of Broadway kids, some version of home schooling seems to be the preferred mode, given the late hours and the matinee performances that can make attendance at regular school unfeasible. Isabella Russo, another young “School of Rock” actress, has been home-schooled her whole life — because for ten years she and her family toured the U.S. with her father, who was a swing in “Wicked.”

Industry types who work with young actors say the specter of the stage mother does occur in real life. But most often, the kids who light up a room are the ones with their own clear, precocious drive. Chambers, for one, recalls MacKenzie expressing a strong desire to perform on stage (and on screen, while she’s at it) from the tender age of five.

As it would be for any full-grown actor, a prominent stage gig can make for an auspicious start to a young performer’s career. Sarah Jessica Parker famously had a stint as a Broadway “Annie,” while Tom Holland, a.k.a. the new Spider-Man, caught a break in “Billy Elliot” in London. While it lasts, a Broadway gig also yields a paycheck — the minimum is about $1,900 a week, as it is for actors of any age — that’ll top any paper route.

But the time inevitably comes from a young actor to move on. When it does, the company of “School of Rock” throws a graduation ceremony, in keeping with the show’s elementary-school setting. Actors Alex Brightman (up for an acting award on Sunday) and Sierra Boggess speak, and graduates receive their own mortarboard caps.

Should any of the alumni express disappointment over growing out of a role, Valentine has a good response in her back pocket. “I tell them, ‘If you’re always 4’10”, you’ll never get to play Elphaba,'” she said.

 

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