Ten years ago today, 13 the musical premiered on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. It was notable for a couple of reasons: It had Jason Robert Brown, a musical theater rockstar, at the helm, and it starred mostly teens — actors at and around the age of 13. (The opening number of the show involves a lot of shouting of the word “thirteen,” so buckle up.) It was a pretty basic show: a teen angst musical set in the suburbs. Teens went to the movies, repaired friendships, and plotted to kiss each other. Most importantly, Ariana Grande was one of the teens.
First, though, we should set the scene. The year is 2008. The economy is tanking. Christopher Nolan debuts The Dark Knight. Broadway is still reeling from Spring Awakening’s 2007 Tony win. In The Heights, also a show largely about young people, just won a Tony Award, too. Not to mention, the teens are all still anxiously learning the dances in High School Musical, which arrived in 2006. 13, a project from Brown, a 38-year-old prodigy, arrives at the beginning of October after almost two years of tryouts, first in Los Angeles and later in Connecticut.
13 was supposed to be a big deal, and not just because Grande was in it; her ascension to stardom didn't begin until a few years later. The show was about real teens — so real, in fact, that nearly everyone in the cast was under the age of 15. The show went so far as to hire a teen orchestra, too. Young theater fans were excited a) because they were finally getting Broadway representation and b) because they probably knew someone who was in it. One of the very first iterations of the show took place at French Woods, a performing arts camp in Hancock, New York. Most of the show’s ardent fans knew of it because they vaguely knew someone in the cast. And, hey, so do you: Ariana Grande! While we’re here, Graham Phillips from The Good Wife and Elizabeth Gillies from Victorious and now Dynasty were also in the original Broadway cast. Not to mention, in the Los Angeles tryout, the show starred Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe of “2 On” fame.
13 was a big cultural touchstone — or, it was meant to be. Imagine if, today, a famed musical theater star (like Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Oscar-winning Greatest Showman songwriters) gathered 13 of the nation’s most talented youths and made them sing about French kissing. This was Freaks and Geeks, but for Broadway.
But that isn't what happened. Broadway has had a lot of disastrous flops, but none so brace-faced and hopeful as 13. Even a young Grande exercising her melisma for all her worth couldn't put butts in seats.
The show centers on Evan Goldman (Phillips in the original Broadway production), a 12-year-old who has just moved from “the heart of Manhattan” to the Midwest, where he’s faced with new friends and fewer pretzels on the street. He immediately befriends his neighbor, Patrice (Allie Trimm in the original cast). When school begins, Evan tries to infiltrate a “cooler” crowd as part of an effort to ensure that the “cool” crowd attends his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. His Bar Mitzvah, the musical reminds us, is going to occur “one day in October.” In the process of infiltrating the cool kids, Evan bungles his friendship with Patrice, who is, for no apparent reason, one of the most hated kids in school. Amid all that, there’s a B-plot about a cheerleader (Gillies) trying to sabotage her best friend’s chance at love. This was all an attempt to get real teen experiences onstage.
But how do 13-year-olds accurately portray their own disastrous inner lives? Moreover, how do you get parents on board for what raunchy tween humor really looks like? And how does all that singing and stuff work with that? After opening, 13 was roundly criticized for being too glib for real 13-year-olds, and too simplistic to draw on nostalgia from adults. “I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t in early adolescence would be crazy about 13,” wrote the Times critic Ben Brantley. (He did allow that the 14-year-old he’d brought to the show actually enjoyed it.)
13 underwent rigorous revisions during previews, warping from a two-act show with some cursing to a tighter one act. Things that would probably still be cut today, 10 years later, would be: the panic around a kiss between the two boys, the many, many lines which equate Kendra (Delaney Moro) with sluttiness, and the fact that an able-bodied performer played a kid with muscular dystrophy.
Grande joined the cast in January of 2008 when it was creeping toward a Broadway launch. She was originally a member of the ensemble, but when the show moved to Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, she earned a character name: Charlotte. In the official Broadway run, Grande was a supporting member best known for launching into the Godspellish rant “day turns to day turns to day turns to day turns to” — you get it. She sings this part in the show’s final number “A Little More Homework To Do.” Then, after that finale, she and Brynn Williams sing “Brand New You,” a song that could have been the finale, but wasn’t. (Grande, Williams and the cast performed this song at Broadway on Broadway in 2008.) She was simultaneously forgettable and remarkable, a talented kid amid 12 other really, really talented kids. “Brand New You,” the song she shared with Williams, though, is a hit for the ages. It has a lick of Hairspray fun with the lesson-learning required for teen properties.
“I didn't know where I was meant to be. I figured no one would be there for me,” Grande sings, “But now, now, now I see a brand new you!”
13 closed on January 4, 2009 after 105 official performances. In total, the show made $3 million, selling only 52% of its total number of available seats. (In my dreams, a 14-year-old Pete Davidson found his way to one of those seats.) Its demographic — New York City-savvy teens who were also somehow familiar with The Last Five Years — was just too small.
While 13 was a missed opportunity, the show was a fertile breeding ground for talent. Phillips, Gillies, and Grande all went on to have robust careers. Gillies is currently going viral with a video of herself just...walking. Grande is busy teasing a fifth album right after releasing her fourth, a boundary-pushing number called sweetener. Her Twitter followers alone could fill the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater 50,000 times over, and her fans, the Arianators, comprise one of the most powerful stanbases on Twitter. She's leveled up far beyond 13, but I'm not sure she's shed the musical's hopes and dreams entirely. 13 was about wanting teen stories to be in the hands of real teens. Grande may be raunchier, slicker, and way more marketable, but she's still promising to help us all get through. In "Get Well Soon," the final song on sweetener, she sings, "When you need someone to pull you out the bubble/I'll be right there just to hug you/ I'll be there."
"A Little More Homework To Do" pt. 2? Sure.
But, really, is anything better than “Brand New You”? Or the suggestion that “pretzels on the street” is something New Yorkers genuinely enjoy?
Listen for yourself.