Roll Model: Merritt David Janes Leads "School of Rock" into Boston

A chat with actor-singer-superman Merritt David Janes about Boston, rock and Dewey Finn.

After mankind invented electricity, it was an easy leap to amp, guitar and hence the creation of rock ‘n’ roll. Then, when theater impresario Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to adapt smash hit movie “School of Rock” into a stage musical, it was a nobrainer to cast Merritt David Janes as lead character Dewey Finn, who teaches kids how to kick out the jams, stick it to the man and other essential rock-life skills. Janes trained as a teacher, actor and singer, all essential pillars on which “School of Rock: The Musical” rests. We caught up with him for a pre-show chat.

School of Rock

How does the musical differ from the movie?

This show has something which has never been done before, which is kids aged 9 through 12 becoming a rock band. And not just any rock band: a phenomenal rock band. And the coolest thing about it is you can watch the movie— and I love the movie so much—but you’re watching a finished, edited product of several months-worth of shooting. We give you one take, every night. And it’s fantastic.

What’s your standout song?

I love “Teacher’s Pet” because it is the culmination of where the kids are headed in the story: they go to the Battle of the Bands and they get to perform.

Did you talk to Jack Black [Dewey in the movie] about playing the character?

He came to the show and he brought his boys with him. He talked about some of the similarities he saw—and I had to tell him that if they took him from the movie and made him look like a thumb, or a big toe, that was me.

School of Rock

You’re no stranger to Boston, right?

Boston is absolutely the most exciting stop on this tour for me, because I feel like I’m coming home. I’m from Vermont, and I went to school in Maine. My grandparents live in Connecticut so I circumnavigate New England all the time. And I get to do this at the Boston Opera House, which is one of the greatest theaters in the country. I must confess that I am a New England sports fan as well—I’d like to invite Tom Brady to come to “School of Rock” again, because he came to the Broadway show a very short while after I left to go on the tour. And I had my whole station upstairs decked out with Patriots stuff. I was so bummed.

What are your Boston highlights?

I love going out to eat in Boston— I love Mike’s Pastry.

Do you have any favorites on the alltime roster of classic Boston rock bands?

I have to say Aerosmith. They just keep going. They are an unstoppable force.

School of Rock

Which other rockers inspire you?

I just saw the “Bohemian Rhapsody” movie [about the band, Queen] two nights ago. I loved it. There’s this part in the show where I reference “We Are the Champions.” I say to the kids, “As a wise prophet once said, ‘We are the champions, my friends.’” It’s a moment where people laugh or smile, but last night they started applauding. Never in the four years that I’ve done the show have the audience applauded that line. I think Freddie Mercury was watching and that was his way of saying ‘Hi.’

How do you pace yourself during such a high-energy show?

Dewey Finn is the hardest part to do in the world. There’s no time for pacing: it’s non-stop singing, running, jumping, screaming, playing instruments, adjusting to being there live with the kids. It’s a great privilege to be able to do it with them and go on the adventure. But I do say that it’s the hardest role in the world in musical theatre. The pacing is kind of out of the window.

Has the show changed your outlook on rock ‘n’ roll?

I’ve talked to Andrew Lloyd Webber about that a few times—I was involved in the Broadway workshop and the original cast of the Broadway show. His whole thing about this show is that it’s about the empowering message of rock ‘n’ roll. That is the real message. We celebrate rock ‘n’ roll in our show: and we have our moment at the end to become part of it. I am so proud that our show, more than any other show I’ve ever done, has caused kids to pick up instruments and write songs. It is spreading music across the country. That’s what it’s all about.

Merritt David Janes