Director John Doyle may have to find actors who can play instruments for his various productions of classic musicals, most recently Company. The producers of Avenue Q may have to search for singing actors who are also handy with a puppet. But for his new musical 13, composer Jason Robert Brown had an equally special challenge.He had to put together a cast made up entirely of triple-threat teenagers. If that wasn’t hard enough, the show’s orchestra is also comprised of adolescents. It gives a new meaning to the term “children’s theatre.” The Tony-winning Brown talked to Playbill.com after the first Mark Taper Forum preview of a show that he hopes will appeal to audiences of all ages.
Playbill.com: What was the impetus behind 13?
Jason Robert Brown: I really did want to write something for teenagers. I felt like, of all the things I had to say, the thing I had to say at this moment was…something about growing up and being that age.
Playbill.com: How did you meet your bookwriter Dan Elish?
JRB: Dan Elish was a friend of a friend of a friend. He had heard me—I had done some interview where I had said that what I wanted to do was write a musical about dancing teenagers. I had said it as a sort of flip comment. Dan heard that and he wrote to me and said, “I want to write a musical about dancing teenagers, too, and I love your work.” He sent me a copy of a book he had written called “Born Too Short” and he wrote me this funny letter. And I said, “Well, that’s great. I’m not really sure I meant what I said about dancing teenagers, but now that I’ve got all this stuff, let me see what happens.” It wasn’t until about a year later that I said, “You know what? I have an idea about teenagers that I want to work on.”
Playbill.com: Is the story for the musical completely original?
JRB: It’s not adapted from anything. It’s a story that I came up with and then Dan and I fleshed it out.
Playbill.com: Are any parts of the musical based on things that happened to you as a teenager?
JRB. No. At least not intentionally. My work is always sort of autobiographical in a sort of roundabout way, so I’m sure there’s plenty of me wandering around in the course of the show. I couldn’t literally point to any event in the show and say that happened to me. Emotionally, it all feels true; it all feels like my life.
Playbill.com: The plays centers around one boy’s bar mitzvah.
JRB: More or less. It centers around Evan, who is a nice Jewish boy from the Upper West Side and he moves to a little town in Indiana. The show is about his struggle to figure out which crowd he’s supposed to be a part of, where he’s supposed to fit in.
Playbill.com: The show has been cast completely with teenagers. Was it difficult to find a cast that was to your liking?
JRB: Absolutely. It was well nigh impossible. There are plenty of talented kids, but these were kids who needed to have a whole lot of theatrical discipline. They needed to be able to speak on stage, to sing, to dance, to make jokes land. I thought it was going to be easier. I thought: they’re just plain teenagers; they don’t need to be such great actors, they can just play themselves. But it turned out to be trickier than I thought.
Playbill.com: How many rounds of auditions were there?
JRB: I’d say we saw over 1,200 kids. And the band is also kids. Outside of the music director, who is a grown-up—more or less—the rest of the members of the band are 14 and 15 years old.
Playbill.com: What has been the reaction of the audience so far?
JRB: It’s a hard show not to root for. Everybody wants to watch what these kids can do and we give them a lot of fairly spectacular things to do in the course of the show. We’ve certainly got our work to do, but we knew that going in. The work rules, in terms of how long you’re allowed to rehearse the kids on any given day [are challenging], and they have to go to school. So the rehearsal schedules have been almost labyrinthine. We went to previews a little less prepared than I’d like to be, just because that’s the way that the Equity rules and the California labor rules for kids worked out. We’ve got two more weeks of previews and, since the first preview yesterday, we’ve put in 23 pages of changes, which we’re going to see tonight.
Playbill.com: Are there any plans for the show after the current production?
JRB: There are aspirations. I don’t know of any specific plans. We’ll see how it goes out here and if we’re happy with it when it’s done.
Playbill.com: How is your musical version of the film Honeymoon in Vegas going?
JRB: It’s going well, though obviously I had to put it in neutral while we were doing 13. I’m looking forward to getting back to it. We plan to do a new workshop of the whole thing sometime in May or June.
Playbill.com: Anything else going on?
JRB: I have a piece I’m writing with [playwright and actress] Charlayne Woodard and we’re hopeful to have a draft of that by the summer. It doesn’t have a name yet. And I have some material I’ve been working on. I have a concert at the Allen Room in Lincoln Center on Feb. 9 and week of concerts at Birdland in April, so I’m going to use that to break in a lot of the material.
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com’s senior correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)