The ever-expanding movie-to-stage-musical genre gained a sizable entry with “School of Rock,” which opened on Broadway in 2015 and hasn’t taken a recess yet. Meanwhile, the national touring production, launched in September and hitting Baltimore this week, has also spread the appeal of the show.
Based on the 2003 film starring comic actor Jack Black, the plot tells of a down-on-his-luck musician who passes himself off as a substitute teacher at a tony prep school. He forms a rock band with students, much to the consternation of their parents.
When turning all of this into a successful piece of musical theater, it helped that a) Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the songs, b) Julian (“Downton Abbey”) Fellowes wrote the book, and c) enough talented children were found to fill out the cast.
“When I saw the movie,” says Merri Sugarman, casting director for the Broadway and touring productions, “my head didn’t immediately go, ‘They should make a musical out of this.’ But when I heard years later that they were talking about doing it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, of course, of course.’ ”
Sugarman, who jokingly describes herself as “the child whisperer,” became an integral participant in the show’s birth, responsible for a particularly tough assignment — filling 15 kids’ roles, and not with just any ordinarily talented kids.
As Webber told me in an interview last fall, “School of Rock” is “about the empowering of music for children and all of us, really.” To drive home that empowerment point, the young people hired for this musical help provide the music.
“Everyone has to sing, and they all have to be killer instrumentalists,” Sugarman says. “Boys need to play piano, guitar and/or drums. Girls need to play bass. It wouldn’t be productive for me at auditions to sit through 10 kids who play violin.”
The first hurdle for the would-be rockers isn’t musical ability, but height. They need to be less than 5 feet tall.
“We have to believe they are in middle school, with all the fears, anxieties and quirky stuff kids in middle school experience,” Sugarman says. “We’re always looking for a kid who feels like a kid — uninhibited, really natural, really fun.”
For well-seasoned child actors, fitting that bill might not be too tough. But the musical requirements mean that acting skills can only get an aspiring cast member so far.
“What makes ‘School of Rock’ so unique is that most kids in the show don’t come from a theater background,” Sugarman says. “They’re from a music background. We might have a child who is a great guitarist, but can’t carry a tune or deliver a line. So we have voice coaches and acting coaches to help get them ready.”
The young talent honed for the “School of Rock” tour has impressed its lead actor, Rob Colletti, who plays Dewey, the would-be rock star with a Pied Piper knack for motivating kids.
“I am just so constantly surprised by these children,” says Colletti, a veteran of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway and on tour. “We call them quadruple threats. They are so humble and so energetic. They are really embodying these roles. They are the best part of the show, and I’m not afraid to admit that.”
Auditions for kids in “School of Rock” take place periodically in New York and in other cities.
A casting call was held in Baltimore last week for boys and girls ages 8 to 12. Out of about 50 who auditioned, a dozen received call-backs and will get another chance to strut their stuff next weekend for tour staffers while “School of Rock” is in town.
“If I see 200 kids, 15 may be good enough,” Sugarman says. “We are never not auditioning.”
This continual searching helps identify talent that can be groomed for future tours — “School of Rock” productions will be coming to Asia and Australia before long — and be ready to step into current casts when an inevitable situation arises.
“With kids, everyone has a different — I hate to use this term — shelf life,” Sugarman says. “Someone might be great at 12, and in three months the voice changes. Once a boy’s voice changes even a little bit, or a girl starts to look even remotely adult-like, we have to put someone else in.”
Finding talented young people who deserve a shot at the show also means finding parents or guardians willing to deal with the opportunity.
“There are a million things parents have to commit to,” Sugarman says.
A show like this seems likely to bring out the stereotypical, overbearing stage mother (or father), pushing offspring into show business no matter what.
“I don’t see that sort of thing much any more,” Sugarman says. “I think kids are rarely put into auditions under duress. Besides, when kids don’t want to be there, they’e not good. Kids can’t fake it. Grownups do it all the time.”
Sugarman sees the continued popularity of the Broadway production as helping the audition process.
“It has become the go-to show for kids living in the New York area or visiting,” she says. “So they are learning our music before auditioning.”
That music comes from a prolific composer perhaps best known now for the operetta-like lushness of his “Phantom of the Opera.”
“Andrew Lloyd Webber is not necessarily the poster boy of someone you’d expect to write a show like this,” Colletti says, “but I think it’s some of the best music he’s written since ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ ” in 1970.
There is more than rock in “School of Rock.”
“The movie was really a Jack Black vehicle,” Colletti says. “Everything was based around him. In the musical, you really care about the other characters, too. It elevates the story lines of the children and the school principal. And there’s a dichotomy of battling ideologies that didn’t exist in the movie.”
Audience reactions to “School of Rock” on tour suggest to Colletti that Lloyd Webber’s goal of demonstrating music’s empowerment truly registers.
“I meet kids at the stage door who tell me, ‘I’m going to a guitar center tomorrow with my parents.’ And,” Colletti says, “one woman in her 80s told me she was going to a store to get an instrument with strings so she could try to learn how to play it. This is a profoundly uplifting show that surprises people.”