Eric Petersen Takes the Lead in School of Rock

The talented children at the exclusive Horace Green prep school in School of Rock: The Musical are taught to strive (but conform); to achieve (but stick to old traditions). Their parents don’t listen to them. Clearly, these kids are ripe for change, and they get it from an unlikely source: schlubby Dewey Finn (Eric Petersen), who has scammed his way into a job as a substitute teacher after being ousted from his hard-rock band.

eric petersen school of rock

Image: Bruce Glikas

Dewey is also a striver—but an undisciplined, unkempt one in mismatched clothes. In a personal anthem early in the show, he pretty much lays out his mission in life: to ascend “Mt. Rock” with “a legion of groupies all duking it out for my chiseled rock-god physique” where he will “scatter hit singles all over the land.”    

This goal is put on indefinite hold, however, when Dewey masquerades as his teacher friend Ned (Steven Booth) and is put in charge of a class full of fifth graders. His boss is another story: a stiff-necked principal, Rosalie (Jenn Gambatese), who long ago let her love of music submerge beneath her life of conformity.

To Dewey’s delight, he discovers the kids are talented musicians, albeit classically trained... not AC/DC. His mission quickly crystallizes: he will turn them into a troupe of little Alice Coopers he can lead into a local Battle of the Bands. His endgame becomes a plan to infuse the kids with the rebelliousness of School’s showstopper, “Stick It to The Man”:

“When the world has screwed you and crushed you in its fist/When the way you’re treated has you good and pissed/There’s been one solution since the world began—don’t just sit and take it/Stick it to The Man!” 

The rousing song turns the audience into a sea of bobbing heads, the younger ones probably wondering if they will ever find a teacher as cool as Dewey.

The hit musical, which is now in its second year, is based on Richard Linklater’s 2003 film starring Jack Black. But while the musical retains the movie’s anarchic spirit and some of its songs, School of Rock becomes something new and deeper on the Broadway stage with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar), lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey.    

The Dewey role is so physically demanding and manic—all but eight minutes spent onstage leaping, scissor-kicking, and playing guitar flat on his back—Petersen performs it only six times a week (his understudy, Will Blum, fills in at two matinees).

Fortunately, Petersen picked up plenty of performance stamina playing Shrek on tour (he also understudied Brian D’Arcy James on Broadway).   

Shrek was physically harder,” he said. “I was wearing a 50-pound fat suit and I had two hours of makeup before and one hour after. My face and hands were covered with prosthetics. The physical challenges taught me how to pace myself and breathe correctly. I used to practice for Shrek on a treadmill in a gym.”

Petersen, who succeeded Tony nominee Alex Brightman as Dewey, learned to play guitar for School of Rock, a skill that goes a long way in helping him fit in with the youngsters who play their instruments onstage while channelling the facial expressions of veteran rockers.

“I didn’t play until four or five weeks ago,” he said after one of his early performances. “It’s one thing to play in your room and say, ‘I got that lick pretty good,’ but now I have to do it in front of 1,500 people.” And a bunch of seriously gifted kid musicians. On the plus side, he’s found his shortcomings as a novice guitarist work for his character.

“Dewey’s maybe not a great guitar player,” Petersen said. “He’s intense, but he’s intense without as much talent as he thinks he has.”

Petersen augments the physical and musical demands of playing Dewey with a natural asset: bluish-green eyes that cannot be ignored.

“They’re big, a little droopy, and they convey empathy,” he said. “I’m aware of it and I use it. They’re my moneymakers.”

school of rock broadway kids ensemble

Image: Matthew Murphy

School of Rock: The Musical is playing at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre,
1634 Broadway. For reservations call 212-239-6200 or visit

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