It’s one thing to argue with a few Von Trapp kids. A few Mathildes. A Gavroche or two.
But a dozen newly minted teenagers, hormones raging and all, crammed into a handful of dressing rooms backstage at a Broadway theater? And aside from the crew, the musical director – and, yes, three child wranglers – no adults in sight?
That was the big experience of “13,” the 2008 coming-of-age musical both about and performed by a group of kids going through one of life’s most chaotically vulnerable stages. The show, about a 13-year-old named Evan juggling his parents’ divorce, his next bar mitzvah and a seemingly life-changing move from New York to central Indiana, wasn’t just a test in running that particular endeavor — one all teen cast and cast — but finding exactly what audience appetite was for a work that was squarely in limbo between Disney and “Spring Awakening.”
Adult reviews were lukewarm – although, to be fair, New York Times critic Ben Brantley’s 14-year-old companion found it “pretty good” – and “13” closed three months after opening night, one of many Broadway victims during the recession.
But in the years since, the show, with music by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, has found new life in schools – and now on Netflix, where a new generation of tweens have picked up the torch with a film adaptation that began airing on Friday.
Most of the original cast members are now in their late twenties. They went from teen shows to planning their weddings. Some still act, direct or choreograph, on television, on Broadway and elsewhere; others have left the company altogether.
And one actress — Ariana Grande, making her Broadway debut as the gossip-prone, flip-phone-wielding Charlotte — has become a veritable pop supernova.
Ahead of the film’s release, members of the cast, band, creative team and production team reminisced about their memories of the show – in conversation with a reporter who, years earlier, at 11, was seated in the audience at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater to see “13,” his 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 considering a new project: an original musical that would also tie into a new book series. The collaboration ultimately fell through, but not before Brown dreamed up a pitch: a story about young teenagers 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 were doing ‘Parade’ in the same season as ‘Footloose’, and people didn’t respond very well to ‘Parade’ when it came out – it’s very heavy. I felt like we spent the whole season competing against dancing teenagers.
DAN ELISH (book) He was joking, you know? But I had just released this young adult novel, about two eighth grade boys in New York. Maybe I was the guy who wrote the Great Dancing Teenager musical.
BROWN Dan sent me a copy of his novel. And I liked that, but I didn’t think it was a musical. But I said, “If you want to work on something with me, I have this idea that I once had about a show with only 13-year-olds.” And Dan said, “Sure, it looks like fun.”
The musical premiered in 2007 at the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. As the show’s producers set their sights on Broadway, writer Robert Horn and director Jeremy Sams join the creative team and begin scouting for their New York cast.
JEREMY SAMS (director) We saw hundreds of kids in New York and LA from all over. It was absolutely obvious the more kids we saw, who we should have on our show. When Ariana Grande arrives, and Liz Gillies and Allie Trimm and Graham [Phillips], it is quite clear. I’ll never forget when Ariana sang for me and Jason in LA
BROWN At the end of the opening number, there are four scat solos. And I remember one day [in rehearsal] with everyone going around the piano and improvising, and some of them were clearly 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 just in musicianship, but his storytelling and creative, problem-solving. I remember him leaving the room whenever he felt something was missing and coming back 30 minutes later with a brilliant brand new song.
AARON SIMON GROS (archie) I was working simultaneously and was dazzled almost all the time.
ELIZABETH GILLIES (Lucy) Ariana and I joke about this a lot because she was so social and made friends with everyone. And I was so tough back then when I started auditioning that I hid in a corner. I was so determined to book this role that I didn’t want to talk to anyone until I started the reading process.
BRYNN WILLIAMS (Cassie) All of our pressure was self-inflicted. We wanted to do well because we wanted to prove that we were capable. But there was no outside pressure at all; they did a fantastic job of treating us like professionals while being aware that we were teenagers.
BROWN A lot of them had done more Broadway shows than I had. And my feeling was, listen, I wrote some tough music, but I know it’s possible. I wasn’t going to simplify it for them unless they couldn’t. But let’s find out first. And they all got up.
ROBERT HORN (book) It was so interesting to see this gap between the amazing work ethic they had at such a young age, and the talent and commitment they bring to it – and the next moment they run away and get in trouble. And you realize they are children.
Case in point: an out-of-town tryout in the summer of 2008 at Goodspeed Musicals in Chester, Connecticut.
BROWN In the middle of July or August or whatever, we just dropped 20 kids in this small town in Connecticut, all living in the same house. They were 13 years old; it was a bunch of punks.
GILLES The closest thing to entertainment was the pizzeria, a cemetery, and the woods.
EAMON FOLEYRichie It was a summer camp with the most talented kids in the world. Like wildly creative kids who half the day had this really sick show built on their talents, then the other half of the day were running through the woods and smoking weed out of bottles of Gatorade.
HONK Someone got caught with a joint. I will not name names.
Throughout the Goodspeed run, and even when performances began on Broadway in September 2008, the show was constantly changing.
HONK We wrote it with these children. They gave us authenticity. I can contribute my humor and storytelling, but I’ve never been a 14 year old girl.
DELANEY MORO (Kendra) They were so good at empowering us to share our ideas, and they would take things we said or do and try to write them down.
GRAHAM PHILLIPS (Evan) New jokes were introduced and removed. According to the reaction of the audience, I would raise one of the five fingers [onstage, directed at Horn in the audience]. If it was really bad, I would put a crooked index finger. It was like the equivalent of a paperclip wimp, wimp.
BROWN I put on a grand finale of the first act at Goodspeed – my idea was a sort of James Brown soul review. It lasted one performance. But on Broadway, we had a whole Dance Dance Revolution number that replaced it.
HONK At one point, the girls came out in those sparkly background singer dresses, and then all those Dance Dance Revolution machines came out — and poor Graham Phillips, who was phenomenal, wasn’t a dancer.
ALLIE TRIMM (Patrice) We spent hours perfecting it so the Dance Dance Revolution arrows light up to match our choreography.
The actors weren’t the only teenagers on stage.
BROWN We also had a group made up entirely of children. So it was a whole other level of craziness – of course, that’s the kind of craziness I loved the most, child musicians.
TOM KITT (music director) They were just happiness. They were ready for anything. The band was on stage and I, of course, the only adult, was hidden behind the backdrop.
CHARLIE ROSEN (swing bass, guitar and percussion) We were kids – we had shortcomings, you know? We weren’t the biggest sight-readers. But Jason didn’t do anything stupid in his writing. We really had to step up and become professional musicians much earlier than even kids in college could really understand – things they don’t teach in music school, like showing up on time and being on time. rehearsal etiquette and how to follow your music director.
BIG 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 teenagers, even just vocally.
For the cast, behind the scenes was often more dramatic than the show itself.
PHILLIPS I shared a box 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.
HONK Someone was dating someone, and a few days later they were dating someone else.
PHILLIPS I remember a lot of sneaking around. I have become more assimilated to the nooks and crannies of the Jacobs Theater than probably anyone else. One of the wranglers was really good at finding me.
TRIMM Everyone discovered their sexuality and found themselves. And I think everyone was going through kind of a massive realization of who we are as people, which is kind of a funny and beautiful parallel to the show.
But somehow, when “13” closed in January 2009, it still wasn’t over. Brown and Horn spent six months tearing up the show and revising the version that would be allowed in schools for community theater productions.
BROWN I always liked “Brand New You”, at the end of the show. And I remember watching it one night, maybe somewhere towards the end of the show, and thinking that’s what the whole show was supposed to have been, as far as that audience was concerned. Lots of things exactly what I started to say: it should have been teenagers dancing. It should have been this kind of kinetic rock concert. And instead, as it developed, it became very personal and very intimate.
GILLES The public [at Goodspeed] were so responsive, and our theater was very quaint. By the time we got to Broadway, it was a whole different animal. It’s a very big stage for a small, very intimate show.
BROWN We had invited a whole bunch of children to the dress rehearsal, and it was a very young and very rowdy audience. I just remember the screams the show got that night. I called my wife and said, “I think we have 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.