Up And Coming:
The Drummers Of School of Rock: The Musical
by David Ciauro
Dante Melucci and Raghav Mehrotra blaze a new route to success on Broadway—from behind a drumset.
In 2003, Jack Black played down-on-his luck guitarist Dewey Finn in the feature film School of Rock. The comedian was surrounded by a talented cast of child actors playing fourth-graders attempting to win a battle of the bands to help pay Dewey’s overdue rent. The plot was particularly well suited for the Broadway stage, and the legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita) created an adaptation that many have hailed as his best show in years.
Broadway beckons the best and brightest of all ages, and young performers are often standouts on stage. With School of Rock, however, the call goes beyond the need for the standard triple threat of extraordinary acting, singing, and dancing talent. Most of these kids are in fact quadruple threats: They sing, act, dance, and play…scratch that—they rock. To get a firsthand account of the demands of playing the unique role of Freddy, the rambunctious but misunderstood drummer, we spoke with thirteen-year-old Dante Melucci, who debuted the role on Broadway, and eleven-year-old Raghav Mehrotra, who took over the part after Melucci’s run and who many saw for the first time during this year’s televised Tony Awards ceremony.
Melucci’s love for music and theater began at an early age. “My dad was always playing the Beatles when I was little, and I always loved music,” Dante says. “I saw some plays when I was younger, and it just looked like fun. I’m very imaginative, so pretending to be in someone else’s life always interested me.”
With the Beatles in heavy rotation in his house, it’s no surprise that Melucci cites Ringo Starr as one of his biggest influences. (Also on that list: Dave Grohl, Travis Barker, and Tré Cool.) While his imagination is what sparked his interest in drumming, Dante learned early on that more pragmatic tendencies, like being prepared, would be critical to a successful life in the limelight. “In most of my life I’m pretty shy,” he says, “but when I feel prepared, the nerves go away, because I know what I need to do and how to do it.”
Mehrotra began playing drums when he was three and admits that musical theater wasn’t always on his radar. But he loved the School of Rock movie, and because he was already following a disciplined practice schedule for his drumming, he was well prepared when the opportunity to play Freddy presented itself. “Before the show, I practiced a half hour to an hour a day,” Mehrotra says. “I’d start by playing some stuff I already knew and then work on something I wanted to learn. For example, I did a cover of Snarky Puppy’s ‘What About Me?’ I practiced four hours a day for two days to get that down. Little challenges like that keep me motivated to practice, and when I complete those challenges, it makes me feel really good.” In addition to Snarky drummer Larnell Lewis, Raghav says he loves Billy Cobham, John Bonham, Buddy Rich, and Steve Smith.
Before School of Rock, neither Melucci nor Mehrotra had performed on Broadway. Late in 2015 there was an open call at the Winter Garden Theatre. Melucci landed the part of Freddy and began rehearsing the show’s Off-Broadway production at the Gramercy Theatre. Once the cast was finalized, the show moved to Broadway. “The process was pretty stressful,” Melucci says, “but we eased into it because we did preview shows for a month before opening night. After two weeks of previews, I wasn’t really nervous anymore. The directors told us to make sure we make every show feel like it’s our first, so I keep my adrenaline up to give it that energy. But once the curtain goes up, I’m in the scene and not focused on my nerves.”
Mehrotra’s journey took a bit longer. “I think I was number 628 of the 22,000 people that tried out,” Raghav says. “I didn’t get a callback from that audition, but I guess they’d kept me in mind, because I eventually did get a call. After about seven more callbacks, I got in as a swing for Dante’s character, Freddy.” Mehrotra echoes Melucci’s sentiments about dealing with preshow jitters. “I don’t really get nervous anymore, but my first show was very nerve-wracking. Broadway is the top of theater. It’s an honor to be here, so there’s a lot of pressure to be good.”
Listening to these young gentlemen speak, you find an evident passion for playing drums and performing. Even though both admit that the drumming aspect was the least stressful part in regard to what the role demanded, they strove to grow as musicians and performers. Melucci received some sage advice from Mick Fleetwood at the opening-night after-party. “He told me to remember that drumming is about the space between the beats more than anything else,” Dante recalls. “As I got more comfortable on stage, I focused on making sure I always played for the song.”
The physical and mental demands of being in a Broadway production are grueling enough for adults. But the most challenging aspect that both young drummers agree upon is the hectic schedule and keeping up with schoolwork. “After I get out of school,” Mehrotra says, “I take a train into the city for the show, do the show, get home by midnight, get up for school again…. But I’m managing to keep up all A’s, so I’m really happy about that. The family rule is that if your grades drop, you have to stop.”
So, do Melucci and Mehrotra also agree that it’s worth it? Absolutely. However, they acknowledge that if they were passionate about drumming but didn’t want a career in the entertainment industry, it would be less so. “If you really want to do it, you’re gonna use every free moment you have to work on [your craft],” Melucci explains. “I like the painter Bob Ross, and he once said, ‘Talent is pursued in interest.’ Maybe it comes easier for some people, but I think if you have the right mentality, anyone can achieve it.”
“Practice is the key to getting everything right,” Mehrotra adds. “Then there’s a world of opportunity that you’re prepared for when it comes to you. But you do have to work hard.”
The future is rife with opportunities that the School of Rock drummers are eager to explore. Aside from the stage, both have expressed an interest in playing in the pit for a show, as well as doing recording sessions. Melucci got to be part of the official cast album, which was recorded at the famed Avatar Studios in Manhattan with Grammy-winning producer Rob Cavallo. “I really want to continue drumming, maybe be in a band with my friends, and I really want to continue acting,” Dante says.
For Mehrotra, the acting bug isn’t biting as hard. “I don’t mind acting if I’m playing an instrument,” he explains, “but I’m not much of an acting person. I play instruments. I’m taking jazz lessons and learning how to read and write music, so if in the future I wind up in a studio and I’m presented with sheet music, I can do it. The only con doing the show is that our only off day is Thursday, so that’s the only day I get to practice. If I don’t keep practicing, my drumming will go down the drain. If I just keep playing the material I already know over and over again, I don’t get to expand on my skills.”
Melucci and Mehrotra may have differing personalities and priorities, but their level of passion for the performing arts is very much the same. It will be fascinating to watch how their careers progress, and what we might someday learn from their experiences. One takeaway from their stories is already clear, however: A combination of hard work and unrestrained creativity makes for an excellent start to an exciting journey.