Dallas — For School of Rock, JoAnn M. Hunter faced a unique set of challenges.
The choreographer of both the Broadway and touring productions of the hit show couldn’t just look for the best dancers. She had to balance the ordinary and the extraordinary, finding ways through movement, to wow audiences while, at the same time, keeping the show’s preteen characters grounded and real.
The prolific Hunter kicked off her Broadway career as a dancer in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. After a stack of New York credits including Thoroughly Modern Millie and Steel Pier, the Japan-born child of a military family transitioned to behind-the-scenes work, creating dances for the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Disaster!, and more. Side trips for out-of-town projects included the Marvin Hamlisch/Rupert Holmes musical The Nutty Professor.
TheaterJones caught up with her prior to School of Rock’s two-week sit-down to close the season for Dallas Summer Musicals. It runs Aug. 15-26 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, followed by a week (Aug. 28-Sept. 2) at Bass Performance Hall, presented by Performing Arts Fort Worth. The musical, based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Black, features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glen Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes.
TheaterJones: The emphasis in School of Rock is on the music. When rock star-level musicianship is key, how do you keep dance from taking a back seat? Did you have situations where it’s “Hey, this kid is an awesome guitarist and we want him in the show, you figure out the rest”?
JoAnn M. Hunter: Absolutely, the music is imperative. These young performers have to play. They can’t sort-of play. When we started the process of searching for talent for the Broadway production, every department sans music took a back seat. If they could carry a tune, could talk, could sing on pitch, we knew we would have to get the rest out of them. It would just take a little more work. Also, though, we want young people who were raw. We don’t want showbizzy theater kids. We want them to feel like kids. The movement is based on their youth and how they would move and get excited.
How do you get to that point?
I do a lot of theater exercises with them to get them out of their shell and to lose their inhibitions. It does take more time, absolutely, but the end result is worth it.
Was the movement for “Stick it to the Man” influenced by some of the choreography in Spring Awakening [which Hunter worked on as dance captain]?
I never even thought of that but, yes, somewhere deep down it probably inspired it. It’s the same idea, though. We didn’t want dancers. We wanted young people and movement that served the piece.
Tell me a little about that process.
I would play bebop and rockabilly and classical and when I said, “change” it would change. I’d ask “How does music influence your body?” Then we’d start molding it. It’s not doing high kicks and stuff like that. It’s like the Peanuts cartoon. It has to be organized chaos. You should feel how young people spontaneously get up and move...but it has to be choreographed within an inch of its life.
Is the touring company smaller than the one you worked with on Broadway?
There’s one less actor. We workshopped 14, used 13 on Broadway, and there’s 12 on the tour...which I prefer. Aesthetically, for me, it makes sense. It feels more symmetrical and more organized in the beginning and then needs to become more disorganized.
The turnover must be a challenge because of kids aging out.
It’s a bummer. We don’t like to hire younger than 9 because of what’s asked of these young kids. It takes maturity. But there are some old 9-year-olds out there. Our oldest is 12. That’s pushing it, especially for the boys. That’s when the voice starts to change and they can’t sing the material. Changeover happens about every six months.
Are there special characteristics you look for at auditions?
I sometimes look at size and say “he’s going to grow out in two months.” I look at their feet. If it’s big feet, oh no. They are going to grow.
I’m getting ready to mount the Australian production of School of Rock and then I’m working on Ever After at Alliance [Theatre] in Atlanta, a jukebox musical mostly with songs by Petula Clark, A Sign of the Times, in the fall, and then August Rush outside of Chicago.
When you are working on a show like Ever After, which has had earlier tries, do you look at the previous choreographer's work?
No, I don’t. I want to approach a show as if it were brand new. I like a blank piece to work on. Even with revivals. I won’t go to Lincoln Center Library and looks at recordings. I’d rather think “what would we do if this were never done before.” I want to challenge myself.
» Lou Harry is an author, playwright and journalist based in Indianapolis.