Assembling the class for ‘School of Rock’

What would “The King & I” have been like without Yul Brynner?  Or “Evita” without Patti LuPone?  Or “Music Man” without Robert Preston?
It’s obvious that casting is essential to theatrical success.  The casting director works closely with a show’s director, producer, writer, and creative team to help find the perfect actor for just the right role.  That includes everyone from the ensemble to the star.

Claire Burke, pictured on next page, is a casting director at Tara Rubin Casting in New York.  She has worked on a number of recent Broadway hits, including “Miss Saigon,” “A Bronx Tale” and “Bandstand” (which included Boston’s own Mary Callanan).

However “School of Rock: The Musical” is very special to Claire because it’s the first project she has been a part of from its initial audition to its national tour -- which plays the Boston Opera House from Feb. 12 to Feb. 24.

Based on the hit film of the same name, “School of Rock” follows Dewey Finn, a failed rock singer who masquerades as a substitute music teacher at a prestigious prep school.  He winds up turning a class of straight-A 5th graders into a bona fide, guitar-shredding rock band. The multi-talented young cast members all play their own instruments on stage.

The original music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber with a book by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes.

Before working in casting, Claire was a founding member of the Mad and Merry Theatre Company where she produced, assistant directed, and performed.  She also worked as House Manager at the Irish Arts Center.

She holds a BFA from NYU where she studied Drama (with the Atlantic Acting School) and Irish Studies. She also studied at Dublin’s Trinity College during her junior year, which she describes as “absolutely one of the best experiences of my life.”

Claire spoke about her work and “School of Rock” from her offices in Manhattan.  Here’s an edited look at our chat.

Q. You studied acting at NYU, but you ended up in casting.  How did that happen?
A. I’d always been really curious about casting.  In school I really loved watching people do their scenes and figuring out where they would fit best in the larger scheme of the show.  I was always fascinated by it, and then (an initial) internship (at Rubin) kind of solidified that for me.

Q. When are you contracted to work on a new show?
A. We‘re usually brought in at the very beginning.  If it’s a new play, we’ll get an early draft of the script.  And we often work with the director and writer as the script gets developed, as far as what they’re looking for and what actors they’re interested in seeing . . . Sometimes we cast readings . . . deciding on actors who will do the reading and read the show out loud so the writer can get a sense of how it sounds.

Q. Do you stage an Open Casting Call or scheduled auditions for specific actors?
A. It depends on the show . . . Every show has an Actors Equity required call  . . . That allows basically any member of Actors Equity to come in and have an initial audition with us.  Usually after that we hold an invited call for the creative team.  For certain shows, mainly when we’re looking for specific things, and when there’s not generally a pool (of specific talent) . . . that’s generally when we hold an Open Call.   For instance, for “School of Rock,” we definitely hold Open Calls because we’re looking for so many little kids who are amazing instrumentalists.

Q. Working with young performers must require a specific skill set.
A. We’re very mindful that we’re seeing kids who are really young -- they’re between 8 and 12 years old.  We always want to handle that with care.  There are some 12 year olds who are in the business for a while and know how it goes.  But a lot of the kids we’re seeing really aren’t in theater at all.  We find them through their music teachers or their band programs and this is all totally new for them.

Q. “School of Rock” was a very popular film.  What drives the stage show?
A. I think part of what makes it special is what makes theater so special, the live component and getting to see all this talent right in front of you.  These kids are so incredibly talented.  They‘re playing all this music, live on stage every night . . . Not to mention that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is something new to the show since the movie.  It’s really fun.

Q. Is Lloyd Webber pro-active during casting and rehearsals?
A. He’s very involved . . . He will come in at the end of the process and have what we call our Finals, where it’s usually narrowed down to just a couple of people for each role.  He always loves to be there for that, and he’s very hands on in the audition room, which was something interesting for me to see. Especially with the kids. He’s great about working with them and giving them notes.

Q. Before we end, tell me about your time at the Irish Arts Center?
A. My best memory is that every St. Patrick’s Day they’d pass out free books by Irish and Irish American authors at different spots around the city.  So there were several years where I’d wake up at 4 in the morning and go up to a subway station in the Bronx and hand out books.  It was a really gratifying thing to do and a great way spread Irish culture around the city on St. Patrick’s Day.

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of
“School of Rock: The Musical,” Feb. 12 – 24, Boston Opera House. Info:  800-982-2787 or