Posted on May 29, 2015 at 9:34 pm

Ooh, I haven’t done one of these in a while!
Jason Marks writes:

Getting ready to musically direct 13 this fall, and just had callbacks last night. We had lots of terrific kids who are great actors and most who are fairly strong singers. However, the role of Evan Goldman is proving to be a tricky one to cast because of young voices, puberty and wide ranges. What exactly is Evan’s voice type? Should the boy who plays him have a voice that has already dropped? In listening to the original cast recording, the original boy almost seems to be in an adult tenor range. Kids I saw last night struggled above an F# – and the alternate keys (which generally sit a minor third higher and should be sung down the octave (I think?)) proved to be too low for my younger ones (ages 11-13) – the same also proved true for the role of Archie. So any advice on how to make this work for young singers would be helpful! I really don’t want someone jumping octaves every 20 seconds when it gets too high for them, nor do I want to rewrite melody lines to accommodate people – I’d like to honor the music for what it is. Help!

And with deep feelings of gratitude to all the music directors in the world, I respond:

All right, this takes a little unpacking. The deal is that the keys for 13 were all set on the original company; when we cast the show, we did it without regard to register, we just cast the best people for the parts. As it turned out, both Evan and Archie (and Brett, for that matter) had effectively “changed” voices by then. (Aaron, who played Archie, actually struggled with the low notes, but “Get Me What I Need” is so rangy that he was either going to end up struggling on the low notes or the high ones, so I picked my poison.) Therefore, the general tessitura for the male characters is sort of high baritone, since most 13- or 14-year-old boys with changed voices can’t really access their high notes too easily, even if they’re tenors, for a couple of years. When MTI acquired the show, I decided to put some alternate keys in the books to accommodate kids whose voices hadn’t yet changed as much. Part of the determination about what keys to put things in was based on the relationships between sections of the score – the alternate opening of “A Little More Homework” is in A because that was the smoothest transition to F Major when Charlotte’s solo starts. (It’s still not all that smooth, but it gets the job done.) I’m the first to admit that real unbroken voices are actually considerably higher than even the alternate keys; I don’t think I was really as aware of that at the time as I am now, but even so, my choices might not have changed too much because the orchestrational textures get very different (or have to be entirely re-voiced) if you drift more than a third or a fourth away from the originally-orchestrated key.

That said, if you’ve got an Evan who really should sing “Being A Geek” in D rather than G, I would suggest that the solo songs just be transposed – the score is mainly chordal, and the transpositions shouldn’t be that time-consuming or complicated. The group numbers are a different matter altogether, and there’s really no way to put “Thirteen” in a key that’s totally comfortable for a real treble without throwing off all of the ensemble writing. But surely these are not uncommon problems in the land of educational theater, especially with kids of this age; I am very grateful that you respect the score and want to protect it and preserve its integrity, but the most important thing is that the story gets told and that the actors are given the tools they need to tell that story. If that means transposing, or changing some notes in the melody, or bouncing around octaves, that’s the job. I won’t be there to hear it, so you can act with impunity; just use your taste and your judgement, and remember that the kids need your support, not me. I’m fine over here, you just make sure the kids feel great about what they’re doing.