For a person who has no children, casting director Merri Sugarman of Tara Rubin Casting spends a lot of time with them. “I’m like an old woman in a shoe!” she exclaims. That’s because she oversees the casting for Andrew Lloyd Webber, Julian Fellowes, and Glenn Slater’s musical School of Rock, which boasts a cast of 15 preteens. She casts the Broadway show and the American tour, which means she’s constantly seeking talent.
School of Rock is about a group of private school kids who’s substitute teacher leads them to start a rock band, so the actors in it need to be able to play their own instruments. When casting, Sugarman isn’t looking for kids who want to be musical theatre stars, she’s looking for kids who want to be rock stars. “We are primarily looking for killer players,” Sugarman says. In particular, she wants A-level drummers and guitarists because those performers play some of the most complicated tracks in the show.
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“We can fudge it a little bit with the girls who play bass, because that’s not a terrifically complicated track instrumentally,” she says. But the kids still need to have picked up an instrument before they walk into the audition room. “The bass players and the pianist can get to where we need them to be in fairly short order if they have the aptitude for it.”
But unfortunately for preteens, they grow very quickly. “I wish I had a more sensitive term to use, but the shelf life of a kid is super unpredictable,” Sugarman explains. Because the characters in the show are so young, the actors playing them cannot be over five feet tall. “If they’re over five feet, they really start to look like young adults,” she says, “and if we cast a kid who’s 4’11’’ or 5 feet tall, chances are they’re going to be too tall in five months. It’s a very expensive endeavor to put a kid in a show, and you want to cast kids who are going to be able to stay with us as long as possible.” On average, the kids in School of Rock will stay for a year (though original cast member Brandon Niederauer, who plays guitar prodigy Zack, has been with the show for over two years), so Sugarman never stops seeking undiscovered (and usually underdeveloped) talent to replenish the cast.
Sometimes the kids she sees have never been on a stage before. Of course, they need to be able to carry a tune, but “we’re looking for real kids, who aren’t necessarily very showbizzy,” she says.
This also means they may need more attention than an experienced performer. “I sat with a kid, who I think is a little genius, just a couple of days ago,” she recalls fondly. “He couldn’t look at the reader in the eye while he was reading the scene. And I knew he was just nervous.” So Sugarman sat down the nine-year-old for a 20-minute staring contest to make him more comfortable with her and making eye contact.
Helping a kid find their inner rock star isn’t always easy, but for Sugarman, that’s what makes the process a joy. “As nerve-wracking and as challenging as it sometimes is, when you are working on talented kids, nothing restores your faith in humanity more than that,” she enthuses. “You kind of think, ‘The world’s going to be ok, if these are the kids who are going to be running it.’”