Justin Collette begins performances as lead in School of Rock on Broadway
Justin Collette’s days of performing in the Pond are in the past. The co-founder of Presents: the Improv has found a new stage to call his own: Broadway’s Winter Garden theatre, home to School of Rock.
I spoke with him on the phone last week in anticipation of his role change in the musical adaptation of the 2004 comedy film. Initially brought into the show to cover for an ensemble member’s vacation, Collette remained in the cast through the creation of a new position: the Dewey alternate. This meant he performed at least three shows per week, mostly covering matinées. Collette explained: “They don’t want Dewey doing a show twice in one day because it’s so vocally demanding.”
As of Sept. 25, Justin has graduated to the principal role of Dewey, played in the film by Jack Black. Now the lead of the show, he performs five nights a week. Of the change, he said, “It’s nice to get into a flow of doing it.”
Originally from Moncton, Collette’s Mt. A days included performances with Windsor Theatre, Black Tie Productions and “SUSHI, the Sackville Underground Society of Housebroken Improvisers.” When SUSHI fell apart, Collette saw an opportunity. His senior independent study culminated in the founding of Presents: the Improv, which is “still the project that I’m the most proud of.”
Erik Garf, the current artistic director of Presents: the Improv, reflected that pride in an email: “It’s great to see one of the founders of Presents carrying the torch onto the Broadway stage.”
After studying at Chicago’s Second City and “taking any job that I could to survive,” Collette co-founded Get Some!, “an all-star group of Canadian sketch comedians.” This project also landed Collette an agent – “the best thing that’s ever happened to me” – and an eventual School of Rock audition.
After learning three songs and ten pages of script in thirty-six hours, making it through multiple rounds of auditions in Toronto and New York, and a rehearsal process he described as “amazing, in the actual, literal sense of that word,” Collette joined the company onstage. This eventually led to experimenting with the role of Dewey.
“This show is really unique in that they want all of their Deweys to be different,” Collette said, “I got to improvise a bunch of jokes that ended up making it into the show.” Collette’s flair for improvisation came as no surprise to Garf: “Improvisers know better than any other actor how to ‘play’ on the stage.”
Collette admitted he was most surprised by level of physical health required for multiple performances a week. He said, “To be on Broadway, you have to really maintain your body because if you’re not at 100% when you go onstage it just sucks.” And the hardest part of the Broadway show? The layers of Dewey’s costumes. “It looks amazing, but oh boy, do I ever lose five pounds a show.” He also described the marathon of an opening sequence, which includes “an Andrew [Lloyd Webber] epic” and choreography that is solely comprised of “run!”
The positives greatly outweigh any negatives. The child actors? “They’re great. They’re also insanely talented and you can’t help but just fall in love with them.” The constant quick changes? “It’s kind of fun, you feel like a NASCAR car.” The relationship between Dewey and the kids? “There’s something magic and musical about it.”
Justin also admitted that one of his favourite parts of the show takes place outside of the theatre: meeting the audience. “I love it,” he said, “That’s one of the most energizing things of the whole process.”
New York City audiences are supportive, but perhaps not as proud as Sackvillians. Paul Del Motte, Motyer-Fancy Theatre’s production manager, said via email: “Justin has always been driven and he knew at the end of the day he wanted to work in the entertainment industry. A leader, rarely a follower.”
In addition, Del Motte shared that he and his wife Jennie were among the first to know of Collette’s new job. “We had a very excited 11:30 p.m. phone call to tell us of the news.” He added: “I also think it’s perfect casting as he has both the acting and musical skills to pull off that role.”
Del Motte also wrote: “It is great to see so many out there not only working, but excelling in their chosen field whether it be on stage, backstage, directing or managing.” Most importantly, however, it matters “that we have people leaving this school with a better knowledge and appreciation of theatre.”