PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 13 — Puppy-Love in the Afternoon

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: 13 — Puppy-Love in the Afternoon
Oct. 5 being a school night, the cast of 13 — a cast of 13, all in and around that particular age — premiered their musical at the Jacobs Theatre at four in the afternoon, then went into party-hardy overdrive at Opera (nee China Club) — till the crack of nine.
Graham Phillips, Elizabeth Gillies, Allie Trimm, Eric Nelsen & Brynn Williams, Joey La Varco, Malik Hammond, Al Calderon, Caitlin Gann & Delaney Moro, Eamon Foley, Aaron Simon Gross & Ariana Grande,13 band, Jason Robert Brown & Christopher Gattelli
Graham Phillips, Elizabeth Gillies, Allie Trimm, Eric Nelsen & Brynn Williams, Joey La Varco, Malik Hammond, Al Calderon, Caitlin Gann & Delaney Moro, Eamon Foley, Aaron Simon Gross & Ariana Grande,13 band, Jason Robert Brown & Christopher Gattelli Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Youth must be served — quickly! — and, when 21 of them awoke the following morning, they were indeed — officially! — Broadway performers. Counting the band backstage, it was the largest number of debuts ever to hit the Main Stem in a single show, all of them meshing together seamlessly, energetically in perfect teenwork.

"Something's comin'," they sang out in the title-tune opener, and they're not talking Wells Fargo Wagon here. They're talking restless hormones starting to rage, cuing a new generation of teen-angst.

Hardly the "something's comin'" that came in West Side Story, but there's still a show in this physiological phenomenon — and a universal one, at that: If you're not going through it right now, you remember what it was like with some tender toleration.

Songwriter Jason Robert Brown, a Tony winner for Parade and a Drama Desk Award winner for The Last Five Years, is the genesis and engine for 13. Thematically, he seems to be working his way backwards — from death to marriage and divorce to puberty, but his next stop won't be musicalizing "The Egg and I." He promises.

The songwriter said, "I have an orchestra piece that I'm working on with Marsha Norman that's opening at the Kennedy Center in December called The Trumpet of the Swan, based on the E.B. White novel. Marsha's writing the narration. And then Honeymoon in Vegas is still floating around so, hopefully, I'll get to that soon." The latter would be based on Andrew Bergman's 1992 film comedy which had a twirling Nicolas Cage-Sarah Jessica Parker-James Caan triangle and was capped by a corps of "flying Elvises." "There's really little autobiography in 13," Brown readily admitted. "I mean, emotionally, I'm all over the show — but, literally, none of the plot happened to me. There's a million impetuses — impeti? — whatever — for writing this show, but the truth is I always had a lot of teenagers at my concerts, and I really wanted to write something that spoke directly to them. So, now, I get to watch these awesome teenagers on stage doing the show, and I get to see these amazed and thrilled teenagers in the audience. Everyone who watches the show gets to know what I was doing it for. It's right up there. It's a gorgeous feeling. To have done that and still have a show I respond to — that speaks to me so specifically — that's a real reward."

Brown estimated that he "probably wrote 40 to 45 songs for the show," then pared those down to 14 (you were expecting 13, right?). "The whole thing has been a pretty hard ride. I think the song that came to me most effortlessly was, probably, 'What It Means to Be a Friend.' That has been in the show since the very first reading."

One of his best songs, choreographed to a fare-thee-well by the high-octane Christopher Gattelli and knocked out of the ballpark by Al Calderon, Malik Hammond, Joey La Varco and Eamon Foley like veteran troupers, is titled antithetically "Bad Bad News." That song was one of the last to be written.

"I didn't get to write it until we were in rehearsal at Goodspeed, just before Broadway," Brown recalled, "and I got to write on the kids themselves. I knew the four kids we had — they were four exceptionally gifted boys — and I said, 'I want to do something that really shows off each of these kids in a very specific way.'"

Similarly, a big production number has been restored to the show as a post-curtain call finale. "'Brand New You' is the song they do at the curtain call," said Brown, "and it was a chance to take some of the performers who hadn't had a chance to do something all night and give them something amazing to do. The song itself had been in the L.A. production. It was actually the finale there, and we cut it when we changed the ending of the show, but then when we all wanted to add a number to feature all these other kids, I said, 'Oh, I have 'Brand New You' from the other show so we put it in, and it worked like gangbusters. It's like I was just keeping it for this moment."

Brown tapped a Brit to direct his slice of teenage "American Pie" — Jeremy Sams — who heretofore has been variously represented on Broadway as a book writer (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), a lyricist (Amour) and a director (the Noises Off revival).

It helped, Sams allowed, to have a teenager at home (via ex-wife Maria Friedman) to gauge his direction of the 13 on stage. He said he couldn't be prouder of the uniform level of professionalism shown by all hands, even the wet-behind-the-ears novices.

Fifteen-year-old Foley, in point of fact, is a veteran Broadway campaigner and, shortly before the curtain went up, wore The Gypsy Robe which Actors' Equity awards to the ensemble member who has amassed the most Broadway credits.

The only person younger than him to be so honored is also in the show: Brynn Williams, who was 12 when she won the robe for In the Life three years ago. She and Foley have both done their tours of duty in How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The other "seasoned" Broadway troupers in the show are Mary Poppins' original charges, Michael (Henry Hodges) and Jane (Delaney Moro). He is understudying four roles, and she has blossomed into the golden girl of her peer group, namely Kendra, the blonde cheerleader.

"That was my Broadway debut, but 13 is my first show with all kids," noted Moro, who really is 13 and is turning 14 in February. She seemed to be basking in her new role of a beauty pursued on several fronts. "I love this role," she flat-out admitted. "She's optimistic, she's curious about the world and herself — it's a lot of fun to play."

She was also feeling a certain melancholy tug at her roots. "Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee are moving on today as well. After the 6:30 performance of Mary Poppins today [Oct. 6], they're leaving the Broadway company and starting up the national tour."

As in the Frank Perry film "Last Summer," there are no grown-ups allowed in 13. It is totally a teen thing that book writers Dan Elish ("Born Too Short: Confessions of an 8th Grade Basket Case") and Robert Horn ("Designing Women") have put on stage.

Horn, at the party, had the relieved look of the guy who had just finished the 50-yard dash. Color was returning to his face and everything. "I actually had a dream last night that nobody would laugh at anything, and I woke up in a sweat," he admitted. "It didn't turn out that way. I was thrilled people not only responded to the humor and the heartfeltness of the book but they related to it. It was love. Laughter is love.

"In order to laugh at the stuff that I put in there, I think people have to go to their own experience of what it was like to be that age and make right choices and wrong choices. All the people in the show — they know people like that or they've grown up with people like that. I think people responded to that, not just the fact it was funny."

Yes, Horn confessed, as a matter of fact, he is Jewish. "A thousand per cent. What gave it away?" Perhaps the preponderance of ethnic humor that generally accompanies a street-smart New York kid who suddenly finds himself, because of his parents' divorce, doomed to have his bar mitzvah in the land that time forgot — bleak and desolate Appleton, Indiana, by name — a sa-looooow lane where "UFOs go to refuel."

"I wanted to bring that Jewish humor into the show as our lead guy brings his sense of Jewishness to a world where it didn't exist," said Brown by way of an explanation.

As Evan, this fish out of water constantly flipping about in a school of decidedly different fish, Graham Phillips gives every impression of being in a perpetual state of high-energy motion. The 15-year-old, who has been acting professionally since he was nine, doing A Christmas Carol with Jim Dale, is not so young that he doesn't feel the weight of it: "I feel it when I crawl into bed and go into a deep sleep. When you're on stage, it doesn't hit you until the show's over. Then, it's 'Whooooaa! That took a lot of energy.' But when you're up there, you're feeding off of everyone. I have a blast.

"I can relate to the character a lot. He really wants to please everybody, and, because he's trying to please everyone equally, he sometimes loses track of who he is."

Predictably, Evan drifts amorously toward another local miscreant misfit, Patrice, played by Allie Trimm, another 13-year-old who can attest to the authenticity of the perspective being advanced here. "The show itself is so real," she insisted. "If you're an adult, you'll think 'Hey, I can relate to that character. I remember exactly who that person was when I was in junior high.' And, if you're a kid, you say, 'Omigosh, I know her or I know him.' It's so cool to do a show that echoes real life."

Her favorite perk of the part is that she gets to deliver the Appleton anthem, "The Lamest Place in the World." Plus, she relates to the role: "My character is a lot like me. She's really level-headed and smart and above all the drama at school. She doesn't really hang out with the popular girls because she's above their dramas."

Dan Elish, Robert Horn, Mario Cantone, Mark Indelicato, Jen Cody and Hunter Foster, Zoe McLellan, Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy, Christopher Sieber, Halley Wegryn Gross, Rob Ashford and Frankie Grande
photos by Aubrey Reuben

The two outcasts find room for one more, a la the "Rebel Without a Cause" triumvirate, and take in a muscular dystrophy wiseacre, Archie (who glibly bills the trio as "the crip, the Jew and their mother"). Aaron Simon Gross plays the part with a defensive wit that's winning. "I love the fact that he is very real. Often, characters afflicted with similar diseases on television and in film and on stage are just treated sympathetically. Archie doesn't care. They don't try to make him any different. He's just like any of the other kids, and he uses wit to get what he wants." The negative vibes in the show come from Lucy, a malicious manipulator who looms like a Madame DuBarry of the high school court. Elizabeth Egan Gillies takes delicious delight in the havoc she causes. "It's a very strong role, and it requires a lot of energy," she said. "I love playing her because I'm a plot mover. I set 'em up, and I tear 'em down. She's very creative and evil and wonderful, which is so much fun to play, y'know. And she's very different from how I am in real life . . . obviously." Her male counterpart in the villain department is Brett, a brutish lout and loud-mouth. "I enjoy every second of playing him," said Eric M. Nelson, who's the oldest (17) and tallest of the cast. "He's kinda the jock bully — and so stupid. I love him!"

The appreciative opening-night audience seemed highly partisan, if not downright parental — and there was applause enough at the end to support on-stage bows for the creators. Even the understudies who haven't officially set foot on the stage before were allowed to scamper forth to share the magic of opening-night applause.

Max Schneider, who understudies four different roles, particularly took to the stage well at the bows: "It was my first time on a Broadway stage, it was my first opening, it was the first job I've ever had in the business, and it's the best job I could ever have."

It all rolled out like that. He continued: "It was amazing to me because I kept thinking how, when I get up on that stage, I'm going to be so nervous. And when I got up there, I just felt so calm and happy. There was not a nervous bone in my body. I was standing there and looking out and I just felt like I was in the right place."

Mark Simon, who cast the show, was beaming about the careers he was setting in motion. "I've never had more fun in my life," Simon said. "The kids have no baggage. We were giving them script pages every day. No problem. No issue. They're great. Sweet kids. I don't think I knew how talented they were until we got them up there."

Tom Kitt, who composed High Fidelity to the lyrics of Amanda Green (supportively in attendance), conducted and did lead keyboardist for the five-teen band, which ranged from 15 to 17 and included a Zac, a Zach and a girl on bass (Lexi Bodick).

Leading off the opening-night guest-list: Peyton and Spencer List, child stars of "Lipstick Jungle"; Zoe McLellan of "Dirty Sexy Money"; the ever-elegant Dina Merrill, who felt like a teenager again ("I thought it was darling!"); Mark Idelicato of "Ugly Betty"; Steve Croft of "60 Minutes"; Seventeen editor-in-chief Ann Shoket; director John Doyle, who's readying Stephen Sondheim's Road Show for The Public viewing ("It's in good shape. There's a lot of reworking that has been done on it. It's going to open about the 18th of November, I believe it is. We start previewing in about a month."); and Mamma Mia!'s Frankie Grande, 25, who was welcoming his 14-year-old kid sister, Ariana Grande, to Broadway via her 13 debut.

An elf (Jennifer Cody), a lord (the well-reviewed Christopher Sieber) and a choreographer (Rob Ashford) constituted the Shrek contingent. Rehearsals started the following 10 AM for its Broadway opening on Dec. 14. Ashford's laryngitis is below Brenda Vaccaro level. "I call it my Elizabeth Ashley voice," he countered.

On vocal rest from Manhattan Theatre Club's Romantic Poetry, the John Patrick Shanley-Henry Krieger musical, was Jerry Dixon, but he did muster the strength to plug a couple of directing assignments: Barnstormer at the NAMT festival Oct. 20-21 at New World Stages, and a Show Boat in Seattle. His partner, actor-comedian Mario Cantone, said he has a November date at Caroline's and will probably be doing another gig with Kathie Lee Gifford on "The Today Show" Friday.

The husband of the aforementioned elf, Hunter Foster, has been busying himself off stage of late: "I just finished doing Bonnie and Clyde at the NYMF festival. I wrote it. The New York Times said we should go to Broadway. I keep saying that. We have producers involved. We're going to do another development thing in L.A., and hopefully the show's going to come around next season. That's what the plan is."

As for upcoming acting assignments, he points playfully at Cody: "I'm living off her because she's doing Shrek. I'm doing a few workshoppy things that are coming up this month. That's about it."

Alan Campbell, in attendance with wife Lauren Kennedy, let slip that he was Goodspeed-bound for Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas with Cass Morgan, Daniel Reichard and Justin Bohon. It will mark 13 choreographer Gattelli's first attempt at choreographing and directing. "It starts rehearsals Nov. 4 and opens Dec. 7, then we'll see what happens after that. The costumes by Henson's Muppet people aren't cheap, so I think they have hopes for it beyond Goodspeed."

Jessica Molaskey, sans John Pizzarelli for once, was singing appropriate praises: "I'm here for my Jason Robert Brown. I always feel like Jason, whether you're 14 or 40, always brings out the best in you — that part of you that you didn't know you had. I love Jason Robert Brown, and I think what he does is singular. And those kids!"

The curtain call at opening night of <i>13.</i>
The curtain call at opening night of 13. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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