More than 22,000 children auditioned for the initial production of “School of Rock” when it opened on Broadway in December of 2015. The kids are an integral part of the popular New York musical, which based on the 2003 hit film. It’s the tale of a wannabe rock star who poses as a substitute teacher and ends up turning his class of straight-A students into a rock band.
The show, which features 14 new songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber as well as the original songs from the movie, comes to the Marian and Benjamin Schuster Center Oct. 2 through 7 as the kickoff of the new Premiere Health Broadway season. Julian Fellowes, a name familiar to fans of “Downton Abbey,” wrote the script.
The talented kids who’ve earned a role in the touring company have to be amazingly versatile. They need to sing, dance and act and many also play rock ‘n’ roll onstage.“They are so much more adept at music than so many of the musicians I’ve played with professionally,” says Rob Colette, who plays the role of Dewey, made famous by Jack Black.
According to casting director Merri Sugarman, all of the kids coming to Dayton 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 looked at was the level of musicianship. In addition to regular rehearsals and tutoring in their school subjects, the children also have band rehearsals.
Here’s what two of the talented young performers in “School of Rock” have to say about their careers and the fun of touring the nation. Gabriella Uhl, a singer from Cornwall, N.Y., began studying dance at the age of 3. Gabriella is 11 and plays Sophie. Theo Mitchell-Penner, on keyboards, has been playing the piano since he was 5 and has received rave reviews as the insecure and gluten-free character, Lawrence.
Q. How did you become interested in theater? Who inspired you?
Gabriella: My whole family loves Broadway and brought me to shows when I was really little. We also watched a lot of movie musicals. When I was almost 5, my older sister was auditioning to be one of the original Broadway Matildas. I wanted to be like her. I still do!
Theo: When I was about four, I went to a spelling camp, and we had to act out a story. I was the dog, and I loved when people piled on top of me. I then saw “Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway,” and I knew I wanted to do what he was doing. I started tap class shortly thereafter.
Seeing “ School of Rock” on Broadway was huge for me. As I was watching the show, I turned to my mom and said I want to be Lawrence. I really liked the character and how he came out of his shell during the show. It was unlike any show I had ever seen before. To see kids up there rocking out was awesome. I was lucky enough to be able to see Elton John on his opening night on his farewell (tour). It was my first concert, and I will never forget how he just got better and better with each song. I dug the glam.
Q. What roles did you play before “School of Rock?”
Gabriella: My first part was in the school play in second grade. I played Aquata, one of the mermaid sisters in “The Little Mermaid.” The first part I got by audition was Molly in “Annie” at Random Farms Kids’ Theater in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. I was in a couple of other main-stage productions there. My first professional performing job was at Westchester Broadway Theatre when I was 9, and I played Kate in “Annie.”
Theo: I was a member of the Lollipop Guild in the “Wizard of Oz” at the Walnut Street Theatre. I have also performed in some regional productions.
Q. Tell us about your audition for this tour
Gabriella: I had been auditioning at open calls in New York City for different shows, and getting a lot of callbacks. I went to the “School of Rock” open call but didn’t get a callback until a couple of months later. I had two callbacks in the middle and end of July. I thought I didn’t get it because over a week passed before I found out I was cast.
Theo: I went to an open call for musicians in NYC in May 2017. I got called back and continued to get called back. About two months after the open call, I was cast as Lawrence.
Q: How did you feel when you got the job?
Gabriella: I was so excited and a little overwhelmed. My dad and brother and I were at a water park and my mom was trying to call us, but my dad’s phone was in the locker. We had a two-week vacation planned a few days after I found out, but I left vacation early to start rehearsals. I was so happy to get cast in a touring Broadway show! I think I did something like 18 or 20 auditions for Broadway shows and tours, so I was really happy to be someone they picked.
Theo: I cried. It was a true dream come true. I had never wanted anything as much as being Lawrence and being part of the SOR family. I am super grateful.
Q. What do you love about the show and your role?
Gaberiella: I love getting to rock out with the amazing kid musicians on stage eight times a week. I’ve done the show almost 400 times and I never get bored of it. Playing Sophie is so fun. She’s always eager to be a helper and pitch in where she’s needed. I also really like the three roles I understudy because each of them has a different character and it’s fun for me to think about how to be all those different people. I even get different hair and costumes if I play those girls.
Theo: Everything! I really love how Dewey inspires the kids to be who they really are and to show that. The character of Lawrence has a strong arc, and so he is exciting to play.
Q. How is life on the road?
Gabriella: Being able to travel to and visit so many cities has been really fun and every place has something to love about it. My mom travels with me and we like finding restaurants and interesting places to see. We do eight shows a week, plus school with our tutors, and I have rehearsals for my understudy parts sometimes, too. I really like being on tour because there’s always a new theater and a new audience. I miss my dad, sister, and brother a lot, but our company feels like a family to me now, too. Sometimes, the crew lets me learn about their jobs, and that’s really exciting for me.
Theo: A year before I was cast as Lawrence, I said to my mom that I would love to live in hotels. It is so much fun to stay at a new place every week. I love traveling to every new place and exploring all there is to see in the cities. I love performing in such legendary theaters. I feel grateful and humbled by this opportunity. Mondays are travel days, unless we are in a city for multiple weeks. If so, then Monday is a day off. Tuesday through Saturday there is school. I perform eight shows a week. It is amazing!
I don’t think of touring as a challenge. I just love being on tour, and I don’t want it to end! There really is nothing else that I would rather be doing
Q. What age children would like this show?
Gabriella: I’ve met a lot of kids at the stage door after shows, and some of them are really little. I think whatever the lowest age the theater says is allowed in would still have a great time at this show. Everyone gets to rock out with the cast and it’s such a fun show.
Theo: “School of Rock” is a show for all ages. There is nothing in the show that would make someone feel sad and cry. The music is rocking! I think younger kids can definitely see it, but they might not get some of the jokes.
Coming full circle
Webber has said “School of Rock” is particularly exciting for him because he started with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which was a piece written for a school and performed first in a school. “And ‘School of Rock’ has taken me back to something that I really care very deeply about, which is the importance of music in school and education,” he says.
Webber believes this show is really about how music changes the lives of the students and also changes the life of their teacher. “Dewey finds himself through the children and the music they are making,” Webber says. “So it’s in a way, a story about music. And that’s what I think excited me.”