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For "School Of Rock," kid casting is key
A whole schoolroom full of ’em is a little unusual, though.
There are, in fact, 17 youths ages roughly 9-12, in the traveling company of “School Of Rock,” the Tony Award-nominated stage adaptation of the 2003 hit film, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a book by “Downton Abbey’s” Julian Fellowes. It places an extra layer of organization and responsibility onto the show, from labor laws and educational needs to just plain backstage wrangling, in order to keep the Rock righteous — as lead character Dewey Finn would say — and running smoothly.
Merri Sugarman of Tara Rubin Casting is no stranger to putting together corps of kids for the stage, either. She’s cast youth actors for “Les Miserables,” “Billy Elliott,” “Mary Poppins” and the upcoming “Trevor.” But by any standard, she acknowledges, there’s never been a need “of this magnitude” before.
“I think the biggest challenge was that we weren’t really looking for theater kids,” Sugarman — an actress herself, with roles in “Les Miserables” and “Aspects Of Love” — says by phone from New York. “There are a million theater kids. We needed kids who were killer (musicians) and singers. So the bar was set pretty high.”
“School Of Rock” tells the story of rock musician Dewey (played by Jack Black in the film) who needs money so he steals a substitute teaching job from a friend at the private Horace Green prep school. Unqualified, Dewey veers the curriculum into a music class and successfully submits his charges — including Detroit’s Joey Gaydos Jr. — into a local battle of the bands.
In re-creating the class for the original Broadway production of the show, which opened in December 2015, Sugarman and her team checked out about 22,000 potential performers. They looked at online clips, scoured actual schools of rock and similar enterprises around the country, and received recommendations from the theater world — looking for the rare combination of someone who can sing, act, dance and play one or more instruments at a professional level.
The age and height (not over 5 feet tall) restrictions also mean the search is constant, so every six months there are trips to Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities for in-person auditions.
“When you replace, you don’t necessarily want them to be cookie cutter,” Sugarman says. “You want each kid to bring something of themselves to it, and that’s what makes it so interesting — but that’s also part and parcel of the challenge.
“There needs to be a certain maturity level in order to navigate backstage and everything else these kids have to remember, as well as their lines and other people’s lines and music and all of that for eight shows a week. Thank God the original kids rose to the occasion, and it’s a little easier now because we really know our needs and we know within a very short period of time how far you can push a kid.”
Sugarman notes that “School Of Rock” is “never NOT looking for kids,” and her company maintains a “huge database” of potential cast members as well as a website that allows aspirants to upload audition videos. “You want to try to bank as many kids as possible for the future,” she says.
The traveling company provides tutors for its child actors, though some are home-schooled by parents on the road as chaperones. Sugarman receives a daily report after each show, which she says “are always so fun — ‘Jane Smith stuck a quarter up her nose and had to go to the emergency room and so-and-so subbed for her,’ stuff you don’t hear with grownups.”
It is, Sugarman says, “bedlam backstage,” but by the time a youth actor “graduates” from “School Of Rock” — complete with a cap-and-gown ceremony and the rest of the cast humming “Pomp and Circumstance” — there’s usually a marked change from how they entered the fray.
“It’s amazing,” Sugarman says. “It’s a journey to see the kids grow, to see them at their first performance and then when they graduate. I’m sure that we’re starting some of them on the path to a great career — and even those who don’t have learned things they’ll be able to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”
If You Go:
• “School Of Rock”
• April 10-22.
• Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
• Tickets are $39-$130.
• Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
* Note: An open audition for “School of Rock’s” youth parts will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 14, at the School of Rock, 6101 Jackson Road, Ann Arbor. The audition is open to youths 8-12 years old. RSVP to SORKIDSONTOUR.COM
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