The senior class of East High from "High School Musical" might have to watch their backs: There's a new batch of singing and dancing teenagers about to enter the world of pop culture. But you won't be able to catch these kids' adventures on a mouse-themed basic-cable network or in an upcoming movie. Nope, the new class of talented tweens is performing eight shows a week — only on Broadway — in the groundbreaking new musical, "13."
In the show, a cast of 13 13-to-17-year-olds play characters based on classic teen archetypes: the new kid, the jock, the hot girl, the freak, etc. But unlike "The Breakfast Club," you won't find a single adult popping up in "13." Even the rock-band pit orchestra is made up entirely of teenagers — a feat that took its toll on the musical's mastermind, 38-year-old Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown. "I think you can ask any parent or any teacher: Teenagers are an enormous pain in the ass," he sighed, before quickly adding, "But other than that, they're sensational!"
The brisk, 90-minute-long, one-act production tells the story of Evan (played by Graham Phillips), a New York City kid whose life is turned upside down when his parents split up and he's forced to move to suburban Indiana a few months before his 13th birthday (and Bar Mitzvah). As he finds his footing at Dan Quayle Junior High, Evan schemes and panders in order to get the cool kids to attend his big party. But as 13-year-old Allie Trimm (who plays Evan's outcast neighbor, Patrice) notes, while the elements of the plot are specific, the theme of fitting in is universal, even if you were born before 1995. "If you're an adult, you'll probably look at the show and think, 'Man, that was me in junior high.' And if you're a kid, you're like, 'Oh my gosh! This is happening to me!"
Ironically, the kids in the cast aren't getting the "typical" junior high school experience. Thanks to the grueling Broadway schedule, they're all tutored together on site for three hours a day. Phillips, the 15-year old who leads the ensemble as Evan, calls the experience "bizarre." "You're spending your entire life with these people; it feels like a reality show or something," he said. "But unlike a reality show, miraculously, we all get a long so well!"
But how well? Putting a group of teenagers together has to lead to some behind-the-scenes showmances, right, Zac and Vanessa? "That's honestly the last thing on our minds," a blushing Phillips insists. "We're just trying to get through this and do our best right now. Maybe in five months when the show's sort of settled in, then maybe ..."
Leave it to Eric Nelsen, the actor playing school-stud Brett, to disagree. "Not to give anything away, but there's definitely been some relationships here and there," he divulged. "We're stuck with each other! Why not try to make something happen, maybe? But everything's professional when we're on stage. Everything's put outside."
Backstage hookups are the least of Jason Robert Brown's worries. For the past five years, he's navigated tricky teenage waters in order to get his "personal" vision on Broadway, auditioning more than 7,000 kids from coast to coast. (As the composer noted, that's a lot of "Corner of the Sky"s to suffer through.) Where most theatrical productions stress out about fundraising, early reviews and ticket sales, "13" has had an additional obstacle to dodge: puberty. "As soon as you get the perfect cast," Brown lamented, "everyone grows up and you have to recast them!"
Similar to Menudo, producers are sticking to an age requirement during the Broadway run. Nelsen, the wise old man of the cast at 17, explains, "You have to be a teenager, and [we] do have a height restriction. You can't grow more than two inches [for wardrobe purposes]."
So how does the cast's smallest member, 14-year-old Al Calderon (who plays Eddie), feel about the anti-growth-spurt initiative? "I mean, I don't know when I'm gonna grow yet! I'm really afraid that one day I'm gonna just shoot up."
Aaron Simon Gross, also 14 — who plays the scene-stealing Archie, a kid with muscular dystrophy who gleefully exploits his serious condition in order to get what he wants — is stressed about the prospect of an early retirement too. "I just saw a documentary called 'Life After Tomorrow,' which was really scary, about what happened to all the 'Annie' orphans when they got older. I need a backup!"
For now, Gross and the other talented teens can take solace in the knowledge that they're making Broadway history as the first all-underage cast ever to grace the Great White Way. Aside from making it into the record books, though, the cast takes more pride in the fact that "13" is as relatable and realistic as it gets. "Because we are that age, I can tell you that is actually is really accurate," Phillips said.
Cast member Ariana Grande boasted, "It's completely different from all the other things that are made for kids our age. It's a completely real version of what happens. Instead of putting all the frosting and sprinkles on top, it's just the cake!"
One quick glance at the ingredients and it's clear what Grande is talking about: The guys in the show obsess over French kissing (or giving "the tongue" to) their love interests. The girls stress about being perceived as "sluts." The cliques in the school include "stoners" and "Goths." And a major plot point revolves around the kids sneaking into an R-rated slasher flick. In other words, Disney this is not.
"I think 'High School Musical' is a little bit on the goodie-two-shoes side; everything's always happy," Calderon noted. Grande quipped, "They're like, 'We're all in this together,' and we're like, 'Nobody says no to a boy with a terminal illness!' "
Your move, Zac Efron ...