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Interview: Jason Robert Brown's 13 Celebrates Its Bar Mitzvah on the Big Screen

Netflix releases a film version of Brown's stage musical on August 12.

"I've always felt," composer Jason Robert Brown says, "that the joy of doing 13 is that there's no shortage of really talented teenagers. I wanted to make sure that, to do the show, you could take any kid and say, 'There's a spot for you. There's a place for your particular thing that you do.'"

13 the Musical, with an underrated Brown score and charming book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, was born on Broadway just shy of 14 years ago. With a cast entirely made up of tweens and teens, it told the story of a young outsider, Evan Goldman, grappling with his parents' divorce on the eve of his Bar Mitzvah. The stage version, which ran just over 100 performances before closing in 2009, was most notable for being early résumé items for co-stars Ariana Grande and Elizabeth Gillies.

On August 12, Netflix will release Tamra Davis's film adaptation of the musical, which features a screenplay by co-book writer Horn and songs, old and new, by Brown. Here, he tells us about developing his baby for the big screen.

Jason Robert Brown
(© David Gordon)

I feel like I've heard rumblings of a 13 movie for years. Tell me how it happened.
After the show closed in New York in 2009, Robert Horn and I went back to work on it, because we didn't feel like we had really finished it. While we were doing the new version, we thought we could make a movie of it, so why don't we write a screenplay and pitch it? We wrote a screenplay and got some notes, and did another version of it, and then I directed the show in London. While I was doing it there, I made some more changes and we integrated all of them. Then we got a call from a production company and they really wanted to make a movie out of 13, but they wanted to hire their own screenwriter. For about four years, they were developing it, and then, like with most movies, nothing ever happened.

When their option ran out, we got a call from Naketha Mattocks, who had just taken over the family films division at Netflix. She had seen the show at the Taper in Los Angeles, in its very first incarnation, and thought it should be a movie. She had worked for Disney and tried to get them to do it, but it wasn't their kind of thing. The minute she took over at Netflix, she said, "I'm gonna make a 13 movie." She came to us with an offer, which included that Robert would get to write it, and that's how it happened.

As with the movie of The Last Five Years, I think the thing that is most amazing to me is that it exists. This was a show that was not Hamilton and was not Mamma Mia! It was this weird little thing that played 100 performances and then went away, and now there's this huge movie on Netflix that's based on this show. Before I can even address anything else about it creatively, I'm just sort of like, "I can't believe that happened." So I'm just thrilled that it exists.

Khiyla Aynne as Charlotte, Frankie McNellis as Lucy, Shechinah Mpumlwana as Cassie, Kayleigh Cerezo as Molly, Lindsey Blackwell as Kendra, Luke Islam as Carlos, Liam Wignall as KC, JD McCrary as Brett, Ramon Reed as Eddie, Nolen Dubuc as Malcolm in 13 the Musical.
(© Alan Markfield/Netflix)

Can you talk about the new songs and plot changes and what necessitated them?
There were a lot of plot things from the original show that don't make sense anymore. Kids aren't like that anymore, or we're more enlightened now about how things happen. There were story points that changed, and when they changed, there were songs that vanished.

The original show is very much informed by these 1980s tropes of what teenagers were like. The show clearly comes from the world of a guy who watched a lot of John Hughes movies. But that particular binary doesn't work anymore, in terms of, the jocks are mean, and the nerds are sweet and smart. Everything has gotten a lot more mixed up, so it was important that we were able to say that.

The new song "I've Been Waiting" was a real opportunity to introduce Brett and Kendra and the kids in this town in a way that was much more specific to who they are than what we did originally. We wanted to find out what these kids are really like. What were their struggles, and what were their joys? So that song introduced them.

There was a song called "The Bloodmaster" in the early versions of the show. In the Broadway version, it was called "All Hail the Brain," which was Evan figuring out how to pull off this big scheme and get the kids to show up at the movie at the same time. That song was problematic in a lot of ways, the first of which is that it relied on a specific theatrical device where he talks to the audience and narrates how things are supposed to work. We tried writing that into the screenplay and it wasn't any fun. So I started from the beginning and made a new version of it, and once we put it on Eli, it was so great to have a real kid be able to take control of the situation.

The key reason for "It Would Be Funny" was that we have grownups in the cast and we didn't before. I love having grownups in the movie. I don't want them in the show, but it would have been weird and arty and pretentious to make a movie where the grownups never showed up. The grownups are the barriers around the world. We got Debra Messing, and she sings great, and she's got this real connection, since she has a kid who's around Eli's age. The whole emotional crux of the movie is Evan's relationship with his mom, and we needed to let them sing about it, so I wrote that song, and now their relationship becomes a real thing because of it.

I'm sad "What It Means to Be a Friend" isn't in the final cut. But it is on the album.
It was filmed, it looks great, she sang the hell out of it, and it's out of my hands. I saw several cuts of the movie where it was in, and then they showed me a cut of the movie where it wasn't in, and I went "What happened?" but Grandpa's out of his league.

Rhea Perlman as Ruth, Debra Messing as Jessica, Eli Golden as Evan, Peter Hermann as Joel, Josh Peck as the Rabbi in 13 the Musical.
(© Alan Markfield/Netflix)

I appreciated how Jewish the movie feels – which is the same way I felt about the show. It feels authentic.
The thing that I fought hardest for, and was most successful in pulling off — because I didn't have a whole lot of say about the movie. It's not my world and they weren't particularly interested. But the thing that I was able to be very strong about is that I didn't want the Jewish characters played by non-Jewish actors. If you're not Jewish and you see a non-Jewish actor play a Jewish part, you don't know the difference. But to the Jews in the audience, we know what the physical, emotional, gestural vocabulary is. We can tell when it's fake. I can tell when Mrs. Maisel is not Jewish, and it isn't actually negotiable. So to be able to get Eli and Rhea Perlman, and Debra Messing and Peter Hermann and Josh Peck, that the Jews in the movie are played by Jews, in a show that is really about the fact that Jews are outsiders, was so significant to me. It was a fight, but it's a fight that I'm really glad I had and that I won.

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