Fighting a couple of Von Trapp kids is one thing. Some Mathildes. A Gavroche or two.
But a dozen brand new teenagers, hormones raging and all, crammed together in a handful of dressing rooms backstage at a Broadway theater? And other than the crew, the music director — and, yes, three child wranglers — no adults in sight?
This was the great experiment of ’13’, the 2008 coming-of-age musical about and performed by a group of children going through one of the more chaotically vulnerable stages of life. The show, about a 13-year-old named Evan juggling his parents’ divorce, his upcoming bar mitzvah and a seemingly life-destroying move from New York to central Indiana, wasn’t just a test at managing this particular business – an all teen cast and band – but to find exactly what the audience was hungry for a work sitting right in the limbo between Disney and “Spring Awakening.”
Adult reviewers were lukewarm — though, to be fair, DailyExpertNews critic Ben Brantley’s 14-year-old companion found it “pretty good” — and “13” closed three months after opening night, one of many Broadway casualties. during the recession.
But in the years since, with music by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, the show has found newfound life in schools — and now on Netflix, where a new generation of tweens have taken up the mantle with a film adaptation set to Friday started streaming.
Most of the original cast members are now in their late twenties. They have graduated from performing for teenagers to planning their weddings. Some are still acting, directing or choreographing, on TV and on Broadway and elsewhere; others have left the company completely.
And one actress — Ariana Grande, who makes her Broadway debut as the gossip-prone, flip-phone-wielding Charlotte — has gone on to become a bonafide pop supernova.
Prior to the film’s release, members of that cast, band, creative team, and production crew looked back on their memories of the show—talking to a reporter who happened to be in the film’s audience years earlier, at age 11. . Bernard B. Jacobs Theater to see ’13’, her first Broadway musical. Here are edited excerpts from our discussions.
A book editor at Scholastic contacted Jason Robert Brown to see if he would be interested in brainstorming a new project: an original musical that would also fit into a new book series. The collaboration eventually fell through, but not before Brown came up with a pitch: a story about young teens that would become the setting for ’13’.
JASON ROBERT BROWN (music and lyrics) Dan Elish had seen me do an interview where I said I really wanted to do a show with a bunch of dancing teenagers. We did “Parade” in the same season as “Footloose”, and people didn’t react very well to “Parade” when it came out – it’s very heavy. I got the feeling that we were battling dancing teens all season.
THEN ELISH (book) He was kidding, you know? But I had just released this children’s novel about two eight-year-olds in New York. Maybe I was the man who wrote the Great Dancing Teenage Musical.
BROWN Dan sent me a copy of his novel. And I liked it, but I didn’t think it was a musical. But I said, “If you want to do something with me, I do feel like I once thought about a show with only 13-year-olds in it.” And Dan said, “Sure, that sounds nice.”
The musical premiered in 2007 at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. As the show’s producers set their sights on Broadway, writer Robert Horn and director Jeremy Sams joined the creative team and searched for their New York cast.
JEREMY SAMS (director) We saw hundreds of kids in New York and LA from all over. It was absolutely clear, the more kids we saw, who we should have on our show. When Ariana Grande shows up, and Liz Gillies and Allie Trimm and Graham [Phillips], it’s pretty obvious. I will never forget when Ariana sang for me and Jason in LA
BROWN At the end of the opening track, there are four scat solos. And I remember one day [in rehearsal] with everyone walking around the piano and just improvising, and some of them were obviously like, I have no idea how to improvise a solo. And some of them were Ariana Grande.
ARIANA GRANDE (Charlotte) Working with Jason is the ultimate masterclass – not only in musicianship, but also in his storytelling and creativity, his problem solving. I remember him leaving the room when they felt like something was missing and coming back 30 minutes later with a brand new brilliant song.
AARON SIMON GROSS (Archive) I was almost always working and in awe of the stars at the same time.
ELISABETH GILLIES (Lucy) Ariana and I joke about it a lot because she was so social and became friends with everyone. And when I first auditioned, I was such a hard core that I kind of hid in a corner. I was so determined to book this role that I didn’t want to talk to anyone until we started the reading process.
BRYNN WILLIAMS (cassie) All our pressure was caused by ourselves. We wanted to do it right, because we wanted to prove we could do it. But there was no outside pressure at all; they did a fantastic job of treating us like professionals while also being aware that we were teenagers.
BROWN A lot of them had done more Broadway shows than I had. And my feeling was, look, I wrote some loud music, but I know it’s possible. I wasn’t going to simplify it for them unless they couldn’t do it. But let’s find out first. And they were all on it.
ROBERT HORN (book) It was so interesting to see that gap between the incredible work ethic they had at such a young age, and the talent and dedication they put into it – and the next moment they run off and get into trouble. And you realize they’re kids.
Example: An out-of-town tryout in the summer of 2008 at Goodspeed Musicals in Chester, Conn.
BROWN In mid-July or August or whatever it was, we released 20 kids in this Connecticut town, all of whom lived in the same house. They were 13 years old; they were a bunch of punks.
GILLIES The closest thing to entertainment was the pizzeria, a graveyard, and the woods.
EAMON FOLEY (Richie) It was a summer camp with the most talented kids in the world. Like wildly creative kids who spent half the day building this really sick show on their talents, and the other half running through the woods smoking weed from Gatorade bottles.
HORN Someone got caught with a joint. I’m not going to name names.
Through the Goodspeed run, and even when Broadway performances began in September 2008, the show was constantly changing.
HORN We were writing it with those kids. They gave us the authenticity. I can bring my humor and stories, but I was never a 14-year-old girl.
DELANEY MORO (Kendra) They were so good at giving us agency to share our ideas, and they picked up on things we said or did and tried to write it down.
GRAHAM PHILLIPS (Evan) New jokes were thrown in and out. Depending on how the audience reacted, I raised one of five fingers [onstage, directed at Horn in the audience]. If it was really bad, I’d raise a crooked index finger. That was like the equivalent of a trombone wow, wow.
BROWN I put a grand finale of the first act on Goodspeed – my idea was a kind of James Brown revue. That lasted one performance. But on Broadway, we had a whole Dance Dance Revolution song that replaced it.
HORN At some point, the girls came out in these sparkly dresses with a backing singer, and then all these Dance Dance Revolution machines came out — and poor Graham Phillips, who was phenomenal, wasn’t a dancer.
ALLIE TRIMM (Patrix) We spent hours developing it so that we light up the Dance Dance Revolution arrows to match our choreography.
The actors were not the only teenagers on stage.
BROWN We also had a band made up entirely of kids. So that was a whole different level of crazy – of course, that’s the kind of crazy I enjoyed the most, the young musicians.
TOM KITT (music director) They were just a delight. They were a game for everything. The band was on stage and I, the one adult, was of course hidden behind the landscape.
CHARLIE ROSEN (swing bass, guitar and percussion) We were kids – we had shortcomings, you know? We weren’t the best viewers. But Jason hasn’t obscured anything from his writing. We really had to get up and become professional musicians much sooner than even kids in college would really understand — things they don’t learn in music school like being on time and rehearsal etiquette and how to follow your music director.
GRANDE I think it’s safe to say that we all quickly developed the discipline and stamina that we would have for the rest of our careers doing eight shows a week as young teens, even just vocally alone.
For the cast, backstage was often more dramatic than the show itself.
PHILLIPS I shared a dressing room with Eric Nelsen [playing Brett]who was dating Liz at the time, who shared a dressing room with Ariana, who I was dating at the time.
BROWN Robert really got into the gossip.
HORN Someone would date someone, and a few days later they would date someone else.
PHILLIPS I remember a lot of sneaking around. I was more equated with the nooks and crannies of the Jacobs Theater than probably anyone else. One of the wranglers was very good at finding me.
trim Everyone was figuring out their sexuality and discovering themselves. And I think everyone went through such a huge awakening of who we are as humans, which is a funny, beautiful parallel to the show.
But in some ways, when “13” closed in January 2009, it still wasn’t ready. Brown and Horn spent six months tearing the show apart and revising the version that would be licensed in schools for community theater productions.
BROWN I always liked ‘Brand New You’ at the end of the show. And I remember seeing it one night, maybe sometime towards the end of the series, and thinking this should have been the whole show, as far as this audience is concerned. A lot of what I started to say: it should have been teenagers dancing. It should have been some kind of kinetic rock concert. And instead it had become very personal and very intimate over the course of its development.
GILLIES public [at Goodspeed] were so receptive, and our theater was very strange. By the time we got to Broadway, it was a completely different animal. It’s a very large stage for a very intimate, small show.
BROWN We had invited a whole group of children to the dress rehearsal, and it was a very young and very noisy audience. I only remember the cries the show got that night. I called my wife and I said, “I think we’ve got a hit.” And I was so wrong. But I wish I could have frozen the show that night because that feeling was exactly what I wanted.