W.C. Fields famously remarked “never work with animals or children,” because they’re invariably scene stealers.
School of Rock, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Julian Fellowes musical, based on the Richard Linklater movie, doesn’t have any animals. But it has children…a lot of them. And many of them play musical instruments. Very well. Rob Colletti, who plays Dewey Finn on the national tour - the role made famous by Jack Black – doesn’t mind sharing the stage with a bunch of pre-teens. “Honestly, it is so surprisingly wonderful,” he says. “They are so much more adept at music than so many of the musicians I've played with professionally.”
Finding these quadruple threat kids – they all need to sing, act and dance, in addition to playing rock and roll – is casting director Merri Sugarman’s task. With a couple of associates, she’s constantly scouring videos, going to open calls and looking at agent submissions in New York and around the country, to find the children who perform in each company of School of Rock. Sugarman puts in long hours, but says “it's incredibly joyful because it's kids, you know? When you see kids who love to make music, or you meet a kid who's so special that you decide to tailor something for that kid.”
Sugarman and her team looked at 22,000 children for the initial production of School of Rock, which opened on Broadway in December of 2015. All the kids they cast are between the ages of 9 and 12 – if they’re any older, their voices and bodies are changing; if they’re any younger, they may not be up to the physical demands of the show. Sugarman says the first thing they look at is the level of musicianship.
“Normally, what we do is we put the acting and the singing on the back burner, just at the top of the process,” she explains. “And we look for instrumentalists. As long as a kid can carry a tune, we can get them there. And we can certainly get them there, as far as the acting goes. It's a lot of material to learn, and it’s much more about the personality of the kid, than their skill set as an actor.”
And the musical skill set of these children can be very impressive. Take 10 year-old Theodora Silverman, who plays Katie, the bass player, on the national tour. A native New Yorker, she already played piano, ukulele and flute, when she came in to audition. How long had she played bass? “I played for maybe a week – that’s it,” she says at a press preview for the School of Rock tour. But she picked it up, fast…along with a little cello.
In addition to regular rehearsals and tutoring – these are elementary school age kids, after all – there are also separate band rehearsals. “It’s really fun,” says Silverman. “All the kids that play instruments, we all jam out. We'll plays some songs from the show, but if we're, like, really spot on with those, then we’ll play something like “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the Guns N’ Roses song, she adds, laughing.
“You know, they really can play,” says composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. “It's extraordinary for their age, just how great they are and how together they play. I mean, you would you close your eyes and you say “Oh gosh, this is a band that's played together for years.” You wouldn't really think that it’s 10 and 11 year olds!” Casting director Merri Sugarman doesn’t mind the logistical challenges, since the rewards are so satisfying. It's more a labor of love than any show I've ever worked on,” she says. “Because it's so exhausting and it's so stressful, that when you kind of see your life's work up there onstage, you’re like ‘Oh,” she sighs. “You almost can't take it! It's beautiful.”