The young musicians in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s newest Broadway musical “School of Rock” are so good that Webber himself assures the audience in a recorded message before the curtain rises that, yes, the kids are really playing those instruments, and yes, they are playing them live.
The national touring company hits Pittsburgh next week at the Benedum Center, with shows running from Oct. 17 to Oct. 22.
The musical is based on the 2003 film “School of Rock,” a story focusing on Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black), a ne’er-do-well wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher at a prep school. The musical hones in more on the stifled lives of the children in Dewey’s class and the transformative power of music.
Mostly, though, the show is just a lot of fun and the talent on stage impressive.
Theodora Silverman, who is just 10 years old, plays “Katie,” a quiet, serious cellist who picks up the bass after encouragement from Dewey.
Silverman, who is from New York, said that Katie is her “dream role,” because she is “the only girl in the band, which is super cool.”
“I love Katie’s bass face,” Silverman wrote in an email; because of union rules and contract provisions, child actors can only participate in advance interviews conducted via email. “She is a serious musician and person but learns to ‘let herself go’ which are qualities we have in common. As much as I am playing the role of Katie I feel we are a lot alike — we are both reserved, kind and fierce!!!”
Silverman has been playing bass for two years and also plays ukulele, piano and flute. She is currently learning electric guitar and drums from some of her “School of Rock” cast mates.
Because the show is so dependent on the musicianship of its young cast members, the audition and rehearsal process deviates from typical Broadway musicals, according to David Ruttura, the associate director of “School of Rock.”
“Because we need them to play instruments at a very high level, we generally end up casting musicians first, and the acting and the singing and the dancing are things we then build up over the course of the rehearsal process,” said Ruttura, speaking from Rochester, N.Y., last week, where he was preparing his cast for the opening night of the tour. “So, we have a really unique process with the kids that helps them become well-rounded performers, but primarily they are musicians.”
Theodora, he noted “is a little bit of an exception, because she has more of theater background.”
This is not her first national tour, having performed in “Once.” She has also appeared in ABC’s “What Would You Do?”
“One of the things I love about her is she’s a total pro,” Ruttura said. “She shows up, she knows what she’s doing, she remembers where she’s supposed to go and she is fully committed, which makes it really exciting to work with her.”
Ruttura has been involved with Webber’s production since its first workshop in 2015, seeing it to Broadway, where it was a New York Times “Critics’ Pick.”
Webber, Ruttura said, continues to be “very involved” in the production.
“It’s very much a passion project of his,” Ruttura said. “It has been important to him over the course of his career to develop projects for kids or about kids, from the very beginning with ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ and ‘Starlight Express,’ and ‘Cats.’”
While Ruttura is a fan of the film, he appreciates the musical’s sharper focus on the kids and their stories.
“The movie is very much a vehicle for Jack Black,” he explained. “But when they were developing the musical, they really wanted to explore the kids’ stories, and the kids’ relationships with their parents, and the kids’ relationship with the school, and how Dewey comes in and allows them to be who they really are. And I think they were really successful in that. The audience goes home going, ‘Wow. Those kids were amazing.’ Where after the film, they go home saying, ‘Wow. Jack Black’s really talented.’”
It’s demanding, yet gratifying, he said, to work with a large cast of kids ranging in age from 9 to 12, who play 10-year-olds in a fifth-grade class.
“It’s both challenging and extremely rewarding working with this many kids,” he said. “One of the things is, because we don’t generally cast trained child actors, the process becomes a little more complicated. One of the most rewarding things is watching the kids come to understand how to talk, how to sing like their character and how to perform like their character.
“The kids are amazing,” he continued. “They come from all over the country, they all have different backgrounds. But you put them in a room and they become a unit. And because they are part of a class — building a unit — and because kids don’t have egos yet, or expectations about what they need to get out of this, they become a tight family really quickly. They become kind of unstoppable, and you can feel that on stage.”
The touring company will travel throughout the country together for about a year.
Although she already is missing her best friends at home and her dog JoJo, Theodora said she loves “hanging out and performing eight shows a week with my cast. The School of Rock kids are the best!”
It’s hard for a 10-year-old to see too far into the future, but Theodora is already looking ahead to 7th grade, when she will celebrate her bar mitzvah at Temple Beth-El, her grandparents’ synagogue in Great Neck, Long Island. Beyond that, she said she “can definitely see myself performing for the rest of my life as it makes me so happy.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at