A Swarm of 13-Year-Olds Took a Broadway Stage. What Could Go Wrong?

It’s one thing to wrangle a few Von Trapp kids. Some Matildas. A Gavroche or two.

But a baker’s dozen of newly minted teenagers, raging hormones and all, packed into a handful of dressing rooms backstage in a Broadway theater? And aside from the crew, the musical director — and, yes, three child wranglers — no adults in sight?

This was the great experiment of “13,” the 2008 coming-of-age musical both about and performed by a group of kids 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-shattering move from New York to the middle of Indiana, was not just a test in managing this particular company — an all-teen cast and band — but in finding exactly what the audience appetite was for a work that sat squarely in the limbo between Disney and “Spring Awakening.”

Adult reviewers were lukewarm — though, to be fair, the 14-year-old companion of the New York Times critic Ben Brantley found it to be “pretty good” — and “13” closed three months after opening night, one of numerous Broadway casualties 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 renewed life in schools — and now on Netflix, where a new generation of tweens have picked up the mantle with a film adaptation that began streaming on Friday.

Most of the original cast members are now in their late 20s. They’ve graduated from having adolescent showmances to planning their weddings. Some are still acting or directing or choreographing, on TV and Broadway and elsewhere; others have left the business entirely.

And one actress — Ariana Grande, making her Broadway debut as the gossip-prone, flip-phone-wielding Charlotte — has become a bona fide pop supernova.

Ahead of the film’s release, members of that cast, band, creative team and production crew looked back on their memories of the show — in conversation with a reporter who, years earlier, at age 11, happened to be sitting in the audience of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater to see “13,” her first Broadway musical. Here are edited excerpts from our discussions.

A book editor at Scholastic reached out to Jason Robert Brown to see if he would be interested in brainstorming a new project: an original musical that would also tie into a new book series. The collaboration eventually fell through, but not before Brown thought up a pitch: a story about young teenagers that would become the framework 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 to “Parade” very well when it came out — it’s very heavy. I got the sense that we were spending the whole season competing against dancing teenagers.

DAN ELISH (book) He was kidding, you know? But I had just had this young adult novel come out, about two eighth grade boys in New York. Maybe I was the guy to write the Great Dancing Teenager 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’re into working on something with me, I do have this idea that I came up with once about a show with nothing but 13-year-olds in it.” And Dan said, “Sure, that sounds fun.”

The musical premiered in 2007 at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. As the show’s producers set their sights on Broadway, the writer Robert Horn and the director Jeremy Sams joined the creative team and started searching for their New York cast.

JEREMY SAMS (director) We saw hundreds of kids in New York and L.A. from all over the place. It was absolutely obvious, the more kids we saw, who we should have in our show. When Ariana Grande turns up, and Liz Gillies and Allie Trimm and Graham [Phillips], it’s quite clear. I’ll never forget when Ariana sang to me and Jason in L.A.

BROWN At the end of the opening number, there are four scat solos. And I remember a day [in rehearsal] with everyone going around the piano and just improvising, and some of them clearly were like, I have no idea how to improvise a solo. And some of them were Ariana Grande.

Ariana Grande, left, with Williams, Phillips and Chris Raymond during the opening night curtain call.Credit… Walter McBride/Corbis, via Getty Images

ARIANA GRANDE (Charlotte) Working with Jason is the ultimate master class — not only in musicianship, but his storytelling and creativity, his problem solving. I remember him leaving the room whenever they felt something was missing and coming back 30 minutes later with a brand-new brilliant song.

AARON SIMON GROSS (Archie) I was simultaneously working and star-struck at virtually all times.

ELIZABETH GILLIES (Lucy) Ariana and I joke about it a lot, because she was so social and making friends with everyone. And I was so hard core back then when I first started auditioning that I just kind of tucked away into 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 of our pressure was self-inflicted. We wanted to do well because we wanted to prove that we were capable. But there wasn’t any 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’ve written some hard 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 all rose to it.

ROBERT HORN (book) It was so interesting to see that divide between the incredible work ethic that they had at such a young age, and the talent and commitment they bring to it — and the next moment they’re running off and getting into trouble. And you realize that they’re kids.

Case in point: an out-of-town tryout in the summer of 2008 at Goodspeed Musicals in Chester, Conn.

BROWN In the middle of July or August or whatever it was, we just let loose 20 kids on this little town in Connecticut, all living in the same house. They were 13 years old; they were a bunch of punks.

GILLIES The closest thing we had to entertainment was the pizzeria, a graveyard and the woods.

EAMON FOLEY (Richie) It was summer camp with the most talented kids in the world. Like wildly creative children who, one half of the day, had this really sick show being built on their talents, and then the other half of the day were running through the woods and smoking weed out of Gatorade bottles.

HORN Someone got caught with a joint. I’m not going to mention names.

Through the Goodspeed run, and even as performances began on Broadway in September 2008, the show was constantly changing.

HORN We were writing it with those kids. They were giving us the authenticity. I can bring my humor and storytelling, 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 would pick up on things that we said or did and try to write it in.

GRAHAM PHILLIPS (Evan) New jokes were being put in and taken out. Depending on how the audience reacted, I’d put up one of five fingers [onstage, directed at Horn in the audience]. If it was really bad, I’d put up a crooked index finger. That was like the equivalent of a trombone womp, womp.

From left: the composer Jason Robert Brown, the book co-writer Robert Horn and Phillips, the musical’s leading (young) man.Credit…via Robert Horn

BROWN I put in a big finale of the first act at Goodspeed — my idea was a James Brown soul revue kind of thing. That lasted one performance. But on Broadway, we had a whole Dance Dance Revolution number that replaced it.

HORN At one point, the girls came out in these background-singer sparkly dresses, and then all these Dance Dance Revolution machines came out — and poor Graham Phillips, who was phenomenal, was not a dancer.

ALLIE TRIMM (Patrice) We spent hours teching it so that we had the Dance Dance Revolution arrows lighting up to match with our choreography.

The actors weren’t the only teenagers onstage.

BROWN We also had a band that was entirely kids. So that was a whole other level of crazy — of course, that’s the kind of crazy that I most enjoyed, the kid musicians.

TOM KITT (musical director) They were just a joy. They were game for anything. The band was onstage and I, of course — the one adult — was hidden by scenery.

CHARLIE ROSEN (swing bass, guitar and percussion) We were kids — we had shortcomings, you know? We weren’t the greatest sight readers. But Jason didn’t dumb down any of his writing. We really had to step up and become professional musicians way earlier than even kids in college might really understand — things that they don’t teach in music school, like showing up on time and rehearsal etiquette and how to follow your music director.

GRANDE I think it is safe to say that all of us quickly developed the discipline and stamina that we’d have for the rest of our careers doing eight shows a week as young teenagers, even just vocally alone.

For the cast, backstage was often more dramatic than the show itself.

PHILLIPS I was sharing a dressing room with Eric Nelsen [playing Brett], who was dating Liz at the time, who was sharing a dressing room with Ariana, who I was dating at the time.

BROWN Robert really got into the gossip.

HORN Somebody would be going out with somebody, and then a few days later, they’d be going out with somebody else.

PHILLIPS I remember a lot of sneaking around. I became more equated with the nooks and crannies of the Jacobs Theater than probably anybody else. One of the wranglers was really good at finding me.

TRIMM Everyone was figuring out their sexuality and finding themselves. And I think everybody was kind of going through such a massive awakening of who we are as people, which is kind of a funny, beautiful parallel to the show.

Eli Golden, center, is Evan in the Netflix movie, which includes adult actors and some new songs.Credit…Alan Markfield/Netflix

But in some ways, when “13” closed in January 2009, it still wasn’t finished. 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 loved “Brand New You,” at the end of the show. And I remember watching it one night, maybe somewhere toward the end of the run, and thinking this is what the whole show was supposed to have been, as far as this audience is concerned. A lot of exactly what I started saying: It should have been teenagers dancing. It should have been this sort of kinetic rock-concert sort of thing. And instead, over the course of developing it, it had become very personal and very intimate.

GILLIES The audiences [at Goodspeed] were so receptive, and our theater was very quaint. By the time we got to Broadway, it was a whole other animal. It’s a very large stage for a very intimate, small show.

BROWN We had invited a whole bunch of kids to the dress rehearsal, and it was a very young and a very rowdy audience. I just remember the shrieks that the show got that night. I called my wife and I said, “I think we have a hit.” And I was so wrong. But I wish I could have just frozen the show that night, because that feeling was exactly what I wanted.

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