The iconic National Theatre is gaining a hilarious new musical for the month of January. Familiar to most, School of Rock The Musical features Merritt David Janes as Dewey Finn, who poses as a substitute teacher and turns a straight-edge class of students into rock stars.
School of Rock The Musical presents 14-new songs from legendary musical theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, bringing rock and roll to every stop of the tour. Merritt was in the original School of Rock The Musical cast on Broadway and is now touring North America – it also happens to be his National Theatre debut in DC.
On Tap asked his thoughts on channeling the character originally portrayed on screen by Jack Black, his own album Waiting in the Wings and what it’s like to perform with a cast primarily made up of young actors.
On Tap: Were you a fan of the film before it became a Broadway production? Are you a Jack Black fan in general? And how did you prepare to play a goofy character like Dewey Finn?
Merritt David Janes: I’m a huge Jack Black fan, and I was a huge fan of the movie when it came out. I have a lot in common with his character personally. I’m a little mischievous, I like to think of myself as a free spirit like Dewey Finn. I guess I’m not quite as lazy or sloppy but you know, in the end, neither is he.
OT: We noticed that you performed in some funnier shows in the past and now you’re playing the hilarious Dewey Finn. Do you prefer comedic roles?
MDJ: There is no preference – somebody asked me years ago, “what kind of roles do you want to play?” I said I want to play great roles at great theaters, venues and arenas. I guess the answer is just keep the party going the best way you can.
OT: What’s it like working and acting with primarily kids?
MDJ: It’s really a great pleasure, they have unique and big energy, and when that energy is all going in the direction of the show it’s fantastic. Young people have a perspective that the whole world is in front of them and it’s inspiring to see. They have a raw energy that most adults envy on a daily basis.
OT: What are some of your thoughts on the level of talent that these young actors and musicians have?
MDJ: The show is putting more instruments in the hands of kids across the country than any other show out there, and I’m particularly proud of that. There were four active productions worldwide and more than 30,000 kids have auditioned for all of them. These are the one in 30,000 you’re seeing.
OT: Does the whole cast perform instruments live?
MDJ: In the show I play live guitar. Everybody plays live, and we do have a pit orchestra. There’s underscoring as in every musical, but when the kids are playing their instruments, they’re live.
OT: Tell us about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s compositions for this show?
MDJ: We have the perfect trifecta – some of the songs from the movie that you love, some great new original music from one of the greatest composers in musical theater ever, and you’re going to come see kids do stuff that’s never been done on Broadway before.
OT: What’s your favorite song from the show?
MDJ: “Teacher’s Pet” is a great song because it just comes at a time where we feel like we’ve made it. It’s a very hard show to do: it’s jumping, running, singing, screaming all the time and then you get to the end of the show and you get to do that song, and that’s where we feel we’ve accomplished something by getting there. Now we can celebrate.
OT: On a more personal note, tell us about your album Waiting in the Wings.
MDJ: When I started touring with shows, I started writing a lot of songs, and this album is a collection of songs I wrote about being on the road. It has a little bit of something for everyone in it, it has a little rock, a little country, a little folk and a little songwriter vibe. It’s about traveling our great country and life on the road.
OT: Were you more interested in performing in musicals or did becoming a recording artist cross your mind?
MDJ: I went to music school first and I learned about playing, writing and singing music; then I went to theater school. I’ve always wanted to be a recording artist.
OT: Being so busy with the musical, how have you been able to promote the album?
MDJ: I’m very proud of the fact that I’m the first actor Andrew Lloyd Weber has ever let promote their own album through the show. Every night at the end of the show, I stand out at the merch stand and sign albums. I have an upcoming EP with the original Broadway kids that’s all rock. That’s [titled] The Winter Guardians and I’m excited it’s coming out.
OT: How would you describe the overall production for people heading out to see the show?
MDJ: I think they’re going to remember the movie and everyone’s going to enjoy stepping into the world of the story, because they’re going to see kids doing something they’ve never done before on Broadway with music from the movie they loved.
School of Rock The Musical is at The National Theatre on Tuesdays through Sundays at various times until January 27. Tickets range from $54-$129 and can be purchased at www.thenationaldc.org. Discounted tickets for furloughed federal employees can be purchased with the promo code FEDERAL, and are available in the orchestra, mezzanine and front balcony sections for the following performances: Thursday, January 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, January 18 at 8 p.m..
The National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org