Like many of us, actor Brent Hill grew up learning a musical instrument, spending seven years honing his violin skills. And like many of us, he let those skills slide as he grew up and his attentions turned elsewhere.
“I can’t make a sound out of a violin now,” he says. “I pick it up now, and it just sounds like a dead cat.”
Instead of a career as an instrumentalist, Hill forged a successful career as an award-winning stage actor, working across both plays (with roles at Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company) and musicals (Little Shop of Horrors, Once, Rock of Ages).
In a way, Hill’s next role is bringing him full circle; he’s working alongside 36 prodigiously talented child musicians in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage version of the Jack Black movie School of Rock.
“There’s a kid who’s nine, and the guitar is bigger than him,” he says of one of his co-stars. “And it’s amazing to watch – he’s a bit insular, but you put a guitar in his hand and he’s a rock god.”
Hill plays Dewey Finn (the Jack Black role), a bit of a loser who has grand ambitions of becoming a rockstar.
“He’s certainly got the lifestyle down pat, but maybe not the talent for it,” Hill says.
Dewey soon fakes his way into a job as a music teacher at a prestigious private school to earn some extra cash. The students are all classically trained, but Dewey teaches them to rock out and find their own voices.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 2015 and won Lloyd Webber some of the best reviews he’s ever received. But the highest praise was reserved for the young stars who form the musical backbone of the show and play live on stage.
Hill says he not only expects that he’ll be upstaged by the kids of the Australian company, but that he hopes it will happen.
“There are some kids in the cast that have 30,000 followers on Instagram, for instance, and they’re much better musicians than I was at that age,” he says. “I can’t even remember what I was like at nine – just playing violin terribly and loving dress-up.”
Hill grew up listening to Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Cats (“because I was the coolest kid around, clearly”).
“My parents would have bridge tournaments, and I would get the VCR in my room and choose a video. It would often be Jesus Christ Superstar from the 1970s, and the music is awesome. It’s wailing and cool and fantastic.”
He says you can hear those early rock roots in the School of Rock score, which features a hard rock earworm called ‘Stick it to the Man’, in which Dewey encourages the kids to fight back against all the pressures upon them. And of course, as he teaches them to stand up for themselves, he starts to grow and become a more empathetic and generous person himself. In one particular scene, the kids tell Dewey just how much he’s done for them.
“I can’t look at them in the eye for longer than a second, because I break down crying. It’s very moving.”
But at heart, School of Rock is a comedy, and Hill is clear about his role as the leader of a tightly drilled but unruly piece of musical theatre driven by rebellion.
“Dewey is a clown,” he says. “The definition of a clown is really: an acrobat falls from a highwire and a clown has to fill time by putting on somebody else’s outfit and pretending to be them. And Dewey does just that.”
School of Rock: The Musical is at Her Majesty's Theatre from October 31.