It has been nearly 18 years since Jack Black’s breakout Hollywood role in 2000’s High Fidelity, and while the comedic actor has been cast in many memorable roles since then, his lasting film legacy might come from his turn as School of Rock’s Dewey Finn, the disheveled but energetic imposter substitute teacher who goes rogue and leads a classroom full of kids to rock band greatness.
Black won’t be coming to Oklahoma City as part of the School of Rock: The Musical touring production set to run Feb. 6-11 at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker Ave., but the Broadway musical adapted from the 2003 film captures his signature charm. (Actors Rob Colletti and alternate Merritt David Janes both shine as Dewey in the stage show.)
The production, presented to local audiences by OKC Broadway, also features a dynamite score from legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose titanic body of work includes Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats and many more.
Above all else, the most fascinating thing about School of Rock: The Musical is its cast of young actors who not only act and deliver lines but actually play their instruments live on stage.
Oklahoma Gazette recently caught up with Matt Bittner, the actor who plays Dewey’s roommate and longtime friend Ned in the touring musical. Bittner, like many millennials, has strong memories from his first time seeing the film version and now enjoys bringing the story to life in theaters across the country.
Oklahoma Gazette: When was the first time you saw the movie? School of Rock is one of those movies where a lot of people remember their first exposure to it, especially if they saw it as kids.
Matt Bittner: I remember being at the movies and I remember watching it and being with a group of friends. I remember knowing it was really hilarious but also being stressed out the whole time. Because the whole premise of movies like this — the whole dramatic action — is, ‘When is he going to get caught?’ And I just couldn’t let myself enjoy it. I kept going, ‘Someone is going to hear these kids playing this rock music! And they’re going to get in trouble!’ Watching it the second time was much more enjoyable because I already knew the whole story.
OKG: Are there any differences between the stage version and the movie that people should know about?
Bittner: The story pretty much follows the same arc. There are some iconic scenes in the movie that are still in the play. The main differences are you get a little more insight into the kids’ lives. You get to see them interact with their parents a bit and you get to see their story arc growing as people. And you also get new music in there that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote; it’s pretty catchy. And you get to see all of it done live — that’s probably the coolest part. You get to see all the kids play their instruments live right in front of you. And you get to see Rob [Colletti], or sometimes Merritt [David Janes], depending on the day you’re coming, playing Dewey — the Jack Black role — but live on stage, bringing all that insane energy right to your face. It’s pretty fun.
OKG: It’s pretty impressive that Andrew Lloyd Webber did the score for this. A lot of people are going to want to show up just for that.
Bittner: Yeah, it’s pretty cool, too. He got his start writing rock music. That was his thing.
OKG: So the kids on the stage show, they’re actually playing their instruments?
OKG: How do they find these kids that are so talented? They can play instruments, they can act and they can be on a stage in front of thousands of people.
Bittner: It’s quite the nationwide sweep, from what I understand. They have to scour the country looking for these kids, and we’ve got some kids from all over the place. Obviously, you’ve got some who are from the New York metropolitan area, but we’ve got some kids from California and they’re from all over the place.
OKG: How many kids are in the show?
Bittner: We have 16 kids, all told. Or, as our choreographer JoAnn (Hunter) likes to call them, young actors. We have 16 young actors in the show. Twelve of them perform every night, and then we have four swings. We have two boys and two girls who understudy all the boy and girl parts. They’ve got to know the instruments and be ready to jump in at a moment’s notice.
OKG: Have you ever been around a show like this that has such a strong contingent of young actors?
Bittner: No, never. It’s been pretty interesting. They’re a great group of kids, though.
OKG: What’s that make the touring like? Is there someone assigned to them?
Bittner: Yeah, the way it works is that there are people assigned to the company of the show. We have tutors and we have what are called child wranglers.
OKG: And that’s the official title?
Bittner: That is the official title. That’s always been a little strange to me. They’re just there with the kids and work with them backstage. The kids have to go to school, so when I’m here and chilling in my hotel room and talking with you, the kids are going to school at the theater only to go and do the show later. Their schedule is quite rigorous.
OKG: One of the interesting things about School of Rock is that it genuinely did inspire a generation of kids to pick up an instrument for the first time. It’s left quite a legacy.
Bittner: Yeah, and the musical has a similar effect. But also, Andrew Lloyd Webber is a huge advocate of music education and education of the arts. One of the things he’s done with this show, in particular, is right after it opened on Broadway, he gave away the rights to do this show for free scholastically. So any school could do School of Rock anywhere for free.
OKG: Is he involved with the show? Have you all ever met with him?
Bittner: Yeah, he came to visit us on the tour once. He came to Columbus, Ohio. It was pretty surreal to be in a room with him. All the kids wanted to take selfies with him.
OKG: How did you come to be cast in the show as Ned?
Bittner: I actually had been auditioning for the show as Dewey since 2015. I went through all these different rounds of auditions for Dewey and ensemble members who understudied Dewey and all this stuff. I guess there’s something about me that wasn’t quite what they were looking for. But one day they were like, ‘Well, what if we brought him in for Ned instead?’ So I went in for Ned for the tour and it worked out.
OKG: How is the crowd? What type of people do you see coming to the show?
Bittner: It spans the whole spectrum, because you’ve got Andrew Lloyd Webber fans, you’ve got kids who want to see other kids on Broadway, you’ve got people who want to see a rock musical, you’ve got people who remember the movie and love the movie. It’s a diverse group of people who come to the show. It’s got something for everybody.
School of Rock: The Musical
7:30 p.m. Feb. 6-8; 8 p.m. Feb. 9; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Feb. 10; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Feb. 11
Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.
Print headline: Rock show; School of Rock: The Musical amps up the production with talented child actors.