W.C. Fields famously pronounced, “never work with animals or children.” Of course, Fields was known to have secretly loved children, and it’s easy to imagine him being enamored by the pint-sized cast of “School of Rock,” Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical based on the 2003 big-screen comedy starring Jack Black as “Dewey Finn,” a shlubby, ne’er-do-well substitute teacher at a buttoned-up prep school who turns his disenchanted students into a thriving rock band.
Born of Broadway, the national tour of “School of Rock,” currently playing at Hollywood Pantages Theatre through May 27 (and heading to Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, Calif. on July 24) and starring Rob Colletti as Dewey, is warm, engaging, and filled with invigorating performances by a cast of budding young musicians and singers who steal the show in almost every scene.
Emmy and Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes, who penned the book for “School of Rock,” is known primarily for tony adult dramas such as “Gosford Park” and “Downton Abbey,” but got his start writing children’s fare such as “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Little Sir Nicholas” for the BBC, a skill, he says, that served him well in helping tap into the adolescent mindset for this project.
“When you are working with children, you’re looking for children who have a kind of natural gift, kids that haven’t been at it long enough for training and experience and all these other things that come into play with adult actors,” he says. “They’ve somehow got to have that fire, you know. So much of the casting of this musical has to do with their music abilities and in this one, of course, it was their ability to play instruments. These tiny children are playing their huge musical instruments like professionals, and that’s really Andrew’s (Lloyd Webber) territory and [director] Laurence Conner’s more than mine, but I did enjoy the whole business of building up a troop of children.”
The emotional thrust of the play lay in its rendering of children struggling to get their voices heard, to challenge the expectations of the adults in their lives, and to assert their identities going forward. The kids in “School of Rock” are not perfect; they fumble and falter and make plenty of mistakes. So when it came to casting the student roles, the director and producers went looking for young actors still a little rough around the edges.
“The kids just have to be polished musically, and the first thing we look for are just kids who are incredible musicians because it’s the one thing that you really can’t compromise in the show,” says casting director Merri Sugarman. “Once we get to know the kids a little bit and we get to know what works best, so long as they are smart and at a place maturity-level wise where they are able to focus, you can find a place where they can understand how to say the lines and what you want the results to be. They’re pretty much all very exposed vocally, so we really do need to have kids who sing. But beyond that, you want the kids to be real kids, first and foremost. If the creatives — the producers, the directors, Webber — if they get a whiff of a ‘showbiz kid,’ they’re out. It’s not at all what they are looking for. What we are looking for is a kid who is true and natural. They don’t have to be perfect all the time. They’re not slick kids. They get slicker the longer they do the show, and the second they become too knowing, you feel less for them, so you’re always doing everything you can to just let them be kids.”
Still, these kids are adhering to a somewhat demanding professional schedule, performing upwards of eight shows a week and cramming in homework and study time with their tutors. (Most of the young cast members are homeschooled.) While touring with “School of Rock” — per Sugarman, each kids spends about a year or less with the show — they relish the chance to express themselves through one of the world’s greatest communicatory tools — music.
“The kids’ parents in the show want them to follow in their footsteps,” says Theodora Silverman, who plays young bass player Katie. “But when Dewey comes, they want to do what he does. They just want to be who they are — and be themselves.”
“It’s about being who you are and sticking it to the man,” adds Theo Mitchell-Penner, who plays pianist Lawrence, referring to one of the show’s catchiest numbers, “Stick it to the Man.” “It’s about not being mind-controlled.”
For Fellowes, it’s the songs in “School of Rock,” from the nostalgic ballad “Where Did the Rock Go?” to the crushing yet inspiring all-student ensemble “If Only You Would Listen,” that capture the anguish and spiritedness of adolescence in a way that all members of the audience — both young and old — can relate. Everybody has that “bloody song,” says Fellowes, that at a certain point in time you could not stop listening to, that song that said the words you alone were not able to find.
“I think when you are very young, you’re often not really able to say what you feel. In fact, quite often you don’t know what you feel,” says Fellowes. “You’re such a kind of bundle of hormones and God knows what else and often it’s a song that tells you what you feel. You’re in the grips of some unsuccessful love affair or whatever it is, and you listen to a particular song and it’s like your own voice, it’s like someone speaking to you and making sense of your emotions. I remember that very, very well, and I think I did sort of remind myself of it when we were working on this show because of the importance of music as a kind of communication tool when you are young. Music is important to lots of people at any age, but there’s something about when you’re young and you can’t put it into words and a song can, and does. That is very potent and we did tap into that with this show.”