A musical education from the School of Rock

A scene from the Broadway Across Canada production of School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The film School of Rock was a surprising smash hit when it was released in 2003. The story about a frustrated rock guitarist named Dewey Finn featured Jack Black at his frenzied best. But he was upstaged by a band of precocious young rockers in his class in the uptight private school where Dewey was faking it as a teacher. Dewey takes a band of young rock and rollers and moulds them into a winning combination ready for a battle of the bands. The film pulled in $131 million after release, making it the highest grossing music-themed comedy until 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2. A Broadway adaptation has been running since 2015 and now a version is touring. Starting next week, School of Rock will be at the National Arts Centre. Before it opens ARTSFILE talked with one of the young performers, 10 year old Grier Burke.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I’m from Chicago and I’ve been doing musical theatre productions since I was four years old. My older brother William inspired me to become an actor because my mom would take me along when she would drop my brother off for his productions and I always wanted to see the stage and show. I always liked the big musical numbers and the solos. We both worked with the late great Rachel Rockwell and I’ve been bitten ever since.  

Q. When did you sign on with School of Rock and where have you been so far? 

A. My first rehearsal was in February in Austin, Texas. My opening city was Louisville. Some of my favourite places we’ve been so far, are Los Angeles and Philly. I have also had the pleasure of performing in Baltimore, Buffalo, Appleton,Wisconsin, San Francisco, Denver, Tempe, San Diego, Costa Mesa, Las Vegas, Dallas, Fort Worth, and I got to return to Detroit as well. I was last there as Young Nala in Lion King the Musical.

Q. What is your role?  

A. I am Tomika. In the first act she is a timid newcomer to (the school called) Horace Green and can’t express her feelings. She is so shy she doesn’t talk to anyone. In the second act, Tomika finds her voice because Dewey Finn creates a fun class and she doesn’t want to be excluded anymore. She wants to relate to the other kids and share her gift with them. 

Q. School of Rock was a popular movie built around Jack Black and the kids in his class. Turning it into a musical makes a lot of sense, but how do you make the character you play your own? 

Grier Burke is a member of the cast of School of Rock.

A. I put myself in Tomika’s shoes and try to see the different possibilities and relate it back to my life and my experiences. Even though I am very outgoing and not shy, I can sometimes be quiet and retreat and not feel very social. I love to sing like the character but I prefer singing on stage than in a small room. I know its weird, but I’m more comfortable singing in front of a thousand people than say like 10. I guess I bring that feeling into Tomika. I always think about what the other students in the play are thinking about me as Tomika especially in the first act. I like the first act even though I’m not singing because I get to quietly build Tomika’s character and confidence.

Q. What kind of music will audiences hear? Got a favourite song? 

A. The audience will hear many different genres of music like rock and gospel. My favourite song is the reprise of If Only You Would Listen because the kids get to persuade Dewey to come back.  

Q. School of Rock, I think, speaks to the importance and power of music education for young people. Do you agree? 

A. I totally agree because all education is important in life and kids need to be able to express their feelings and not just by writing essays. They can use music to express their feelings too. Music can be used to share how you are feeling about the world and life.

Q. School of Rock also explores rock music history. Are you a rock ‘n’ roller? 

A. I love all genres of music. I like Journey, Blondie and Def Leopard mostly because my mom has been blasting that my whole life. I really didn’t have a choice. I REALLY LOVE musical theatre songs too. But my favourite rock band is probably Queen and my pump up song is We Will Rock You!

Q. Are you a product of music education in school or out?

A. Yes. I attended Merit School of Music in Chicago where I started with cello and ended with piano.

My favourite teacher there was Ms. Ingrid. My favourite piano teacher was Ms. Emily and my favourite voice teacher is Ms. Webb of Muzicnet.

Q. What did that contact mean for your career? 

A. I come from a musical family so I was already exposed to music. My teachers have helped me be better at my craft and to keep developing my gifts.

Q. What do you hope audience members take away from School of Rock?

A. I like this question because I think about the audience when I am performing. I hope the kids in the audience are inspired to take chances and maybe even play an instrument, speak up and express themselves. I want the kids to look at Tomika and be encouraged to express themselves. I want the parents and grandparents in the audience to think more about what their kids are feeling. I want them to feel good and be changed for the better.

Broadway Across Canada presents School of Rock
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Sept.25 to 30
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.