Blake Ryan isn’t on stage during every “School of Rock” performance by the national touring company, but he could be — in any one of five roles.
The 12-year-old Draper boy understudies all but one of the roles for boys in the show, which opened Tuesday at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City. It’s based on the 2003 movie about a substitute music teacher who inspires his students to become rock musicians and compete in a battle of the bands — much to the consternation of the principal and the kids’ parents.
“I play Zack, the lead guitar player; James, who’s, like, the security guard; Mason, who’s tech; and then Billy, who’s the stylist who gets all the laughs,” Ryan said. His favorites? Zack and Billy, who are “fun for different reasons.”
“Zack, obviously, you get to play the guitar in front of thousands of people,” Ryan said. “And Billy, you just get to be the crazy kid who everybody laughs at.”
Yes, he had to memorize all the lines for five different characters. But that was “kind of the easy part,” Ryan said. He also has to know all the choreography for each character — and that doesn’t just mean dance sequences. Every move every character makes is staged, and he has to hit all those marks.
“There’s desks and tables and chalkboards and tons of stuff that you have to move around,” he said. “There’s probably 20 different desk positions that you have to know for each character. That means that I have to know a hundred different desk positions — and that’s just the desks.”
When the show opened Tuesday at the Eccles, it quickly became clear what Ryan was talking about. There are sequences when a dozen young actors are each pushing desks quickly across the stage into position; if any of them misses their marks, there would be a major collision.
Ryan didn’t get on stage for Tuesday’s performance, which won over a near-capacity audience with its high energy and humor. Merritt David Janes was engaging as the faux teacher, Dewey, who turned a class full of kids into a band; Lexie Dorsett Sharp was a delight as the school principal.
The show was at its best when the kids were onstage, bouncing off the floor (and, seemingly, off the walls) to the music. We could have done without the anachronistic Native American image (a child in a headdress sitting cross-legged) and the over-the-top, stereotypical portrayal of a gay dad, but anyone who saw the 2003 movie — and probably anyone who didn’t — will be entertained.
Fun on five instruments
Born Blake Ryan Hullinger — he dropped his last name professionally when he joined the “School of Rock” company — Ryan came to the attention of “School of Rock” producers because of his musical versatility. He plays the guitar, piano, drums, harmonica and ukulele.
The 2015 play features music by musical-theater legend Andrew Lloyd Weber; lyrics by Glenn Slater (“The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act”); and the book was written by Julian Fellowes, the creator/writer of “Downton Abbey.”
Ryan and his brother, 15-year-old Kellen, started performing as a duo — Broband — when they were 8 and 11. In early 2018, Ryan auditioned for a local production of “Peter Pan” in Draper — and he was somewhat surprised when he was cast in the lead role.
“I realized, ‘Well, this was actually really fun.’ I [wanted] to try for the Broadway ‘School of Rock’ because that’s how you step up. So we just sent in a video,” he said.
He is a kid, so it took some encouragement from his mom, Tamara Squires, before he made and sent in the audition tape. “I was like, ‘OK, fine,’” Ryan said. “And that ‘OK, fine’ was the best thing I’ve ever said.”
That audition tape got him cast as Zack in a “School of Rock” production in St. George. And that — along with the tape — led to a call from New York.
“They were like, ‘We love your kid and we want to see more of him.’ So if you can fly to New York … Because if you go out to New York on your own dime, yeah, then they know that you’re serious,” Ryan said.
But it was also his ability to play multiple instruments that caught producers’ attention, Squires said. “They reached out to us, saying he’s very valuable to the tour to be able to cover all the roles that he could.”
Ryan and his parents traveled to New York and he made it through four callbacks. “I came back to the hotel room that night and I was like, ‘Well, that was an amazing experience. I don’t care if I get it or not.’”
A week later — in July 2018 — the call came. And the family had to move quickly. The contract arrived on a Tuesday; it had to be signed by Thursday; Ryan was on a flight out on Saturday; and he was on the tour on Monday.
“It was insanely fast,” Ryan said.
‘You have to be ready’
Sometimes Ryan knows when he’ll be going on as much as a month in advance, if another cast member is taking time off. Or when he’s performing in his hometown. (He’s scheduled to appear as James on Friday night and the Saturday matinee; and as Zack on Saturday night.)
“But sometimes it’s five minutes before the show. Sometimes it’s at intermission,” Ryan said, because another cast member has fallen ill. “You have to be ready. You have to be able to say, ‘Yes, I can do that.’ Whatever they throw at you, you have to be really confident.”
He’s also got the talent to pull it off, along with the willingness to put in the work.
“He does a lot of self-motivated daily rehearsing and practicing,” Squires said. “... Kids always want to know how he does it. You do have to put in the practice.”
“Practice, practice, practice,” Ryan chimed in.
The tour has taken him to 30 cities in 19 states and Canada, from Tennessee to Texas, Ohio to Ontario to Oregon. And Ryan said he’s loved every stop. “I’d never think of, like, ‘Let’s go to Des Moines!’ But it was amazing,” he said.
In Memphis, he visited Elvis Presley’s home, Graceland, and Sun Records — where Ryan got permission to sit down and play at a what he thought was just a random piano.
“And I decided to play ‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Jerry Lee Lewis,” Ryan said, only to learn, after he finished, that he was playing Lewis’ piano. “It was just one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.”
The tour has also given him and the other cast members bit of a boost in school. “We’re probably all pretty good at geography by now,” he said with a laugh.
There are three tutors on the tour, and his lessons are provided by Summit Academy in Draper, where he attended school (in person) before joining the tour.
The family connection
Ryan and his brother Kellen first saw the 2003 movie — released more than three years before Ryan was born — while on a family trip to Australia in 2015.
“I saw these light bulbs go on in their brains,” Squires said. “Literally the next day, they started singing and the rest is history.”
“It’s the aha moment,” Ryan said. “The first time we watched the movie, we were like, ‘We want to be musicians because other kids can do it.’ And then when I went to New York and I saw the ‘School of Rock,’ I knew that’s what I want to do.”
And he’s quick to credit Kellen as his main motivation.
“I wanted to try out more stuff because my brother loves to do theater,” Ryan said. “He does a bunch of school plays and he’s a really good actor. Of course I want to be like my big brother. I was just looking I was looking for fun and ended up here.”
Ryan’s mother and father, Brett Hullinger, have traded off during the tour, each accompanying him for a few weeks at a time. “And we have a rule, just so that our family doesn’t get broken up — because you know how that goes with rock bands and all that,” he said with a laugh. “So we agreed at the beginning that every month our whole family would be together at some point so that we can keep our connection.”
Ryan said “School of Rock” is “very relatable in some ways” — kids like him wanting to rock out — but he doesn’t relate to the fictional parents’ lack of support for their children’s musical dreams.
“My parents, in real life, they’re just really supportive and amazing,” he said.
Salt Lake City is the second-to-last stop on the “School of Rock” tour, and Ryan expects “it is going to be really awesome to be home.”
After the tour ends in San Jose on June 9, he’s looking at auditioning for TV and film roles. He’s also interested in eventually becoming a musical director for a Broadway or touring show. He’s gotten to sit in the music pit with the “School of Rock” musical director and with the guitarists.
“It’s just really cool to see how the music stuff works. So that inspired me to work toward being a musical director when I’m older,” he said.
GOING TO THE ‘SCHOOL OF ROCK’
The musical, based on the hit film, features 14 new songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber and all the original songs from the movie, as a kids’ rock band plays their instruments live on stage. Blake Ryan, 12, from Draper, is the understudy for five characters; he’s expected to perform Friday and Saturday and may make other appearances.
Where • Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main St., Salt Lake City
When • May 28-June 2
Tickets • arttix.artsaltlake.org