Playing 13 – Guitar 1 And Guitar 2
Music/Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Book: Dan Elish & Robert Horn
Year: 2008 (Broadway), 2012 (West End – revised version)
In this article I reflect and heap a lot of praise on Jason Robert Brown’s “13”, the enduringly popular coming-of-age rock musical for middle-schoolers. The show occupies a special place in my affections, because it was the first musical I ever played, and I have had the memorable privilege of performing it in front of Mr. Brown himself (more on that later). Sentimental associations and the fact that I am well outside the target demographic aside, I will say up front that I am unashamedly fond of 13, because it has a terrific score which is always a thrill to play, and it is a joy to see the pleasure young actors derive from performing material written specifically for them.
This article briefly covers the show’s history, and what it means to the young actors who get to perform it, before going on to examine the score from a guitarist’s perspective, review the orchestration and offer some general observations on the two Guitar books. I also describe my approach to preparing a combined Guitar book for the show (and why it’s sometimes useful to eliminate one Guitar), and provide details of the equipment required for each Guitar book, plus the rig I used to play a combined book.
A UNIQUE BROADWAY FIRST
13 opened on Broadway in September 2008 (in previews), after development runs in Los Angeles and Chester, Connecticut during 2007 and 2008. The entire cast and band were teenagers (including a young Ariana Grande), a unique Broadway first which has yet to be repeated. The Broadway run lasted only four months, closing after a total of 127 performances. It could theoretically have defied the odds, but realistically a show like 13 was always going to be a hard sell on Broadway. Teens, the target audience, loved it, but how many teens can afford Broadway ticket prices? Reviewers, almost by definition older and more jaded, generally liked the music but couldn’t relate to the material, and gave it lukewarm reviews (those who complained that it didn’t offer enough to adults were probably missing the point…). The real achievement was that it opened on Broadway at all because, by giving 13 a high profile, the short Broadway run served as a springboard for the considerable success which has followed. Teens love the show, and it has enjoyed a non-stop 10-year succession of hundreds of productions all over the world. Jason Robert Brown has commented that it “pays the rent – it gets more productions than anything else…”.
13 tells the story of Evan Goldman, a 12-year old New Yorker whose life is upended when, following his parents’ messy divorce, his mother moves, transplanting him to small-town Indiana. Determined not to let circumstances derail his plans for a spectacular bar mitzvah, Evan schemes to get the local “cool kids” to like him and come to his party, aided by his decidedly uncool friends, Archie and Patrice. Things go hilariously awry and lessons are learned. It’s a simple story that should resonate with anyone who has ever been a teen, particularly in the USA. The characters plot and scheme, each with their own agenda; it is notable that Archie, who is disabled, is not treated as a sentimental object of pity, but is just as cunning and motivated as the rest of the characters. Adults watching the show will blush as ancient memories are stirred, and enjoy the more risqué moments (considering the age group it is aimed at, the show is very edgy, flirting with bad taste at times).
The show is structured as a one-act, sung through piece (all music, almost no dialogue), set to a high energy pop/rock score which folds in elements of folk, metal, blues, reggae, Motown, and classic Broadway showtunes. There’s a healthy dose of Billy Joel in the poppier numbers, and knowing nods to Barry White and (maybe) a hint of Ravel’s Bolero. The whole thing is enormous fun, and doesn’t slow up for an instant, until all Evan’s schemes fall apart and he is forced into a little introspection. My impression is that Brown had a lot of fun writing these songs – it certainly sounds like it.
A SHOW ABOUT, BY AND FOR YOUNG TEENS
In December 2011, I played for Broadway Bound Children’s Theatre’s production of 13 at the ACT Theatre in Seattle, and Jason Robert Brown came to work with the cast for a day. Talking to the cast, he said that he had written the show so that children of their age could play characters who reflected their own experiences, rather than having to pretend to be adults all the time. In a 2005 interview, he said “[I] wanted to write something that didn’t condescend to [13-year-olds] in any way, something they could own, something that felt like their show”. That the show is written from this perspective partly explains why young actors love the show so much, even though the show’s musical styles are more retro than its target demographic’s tastes.
Another interesting aspect of the show is that it can only be effectively performed by children in the 12-16 age bracket, who are living through the issues the show examines. For younger children, the material might be considered borderline inappropriate and/or too challenging to perform. Having 17+ teens or adults perform the show would reduce it to parodic farce, which was not Brown’s intent in writing it. Requests have apparently been made to stage the show with a cast of adults; all have been rejected. Ultimately, 13 is a show about, for and performed by young teens, and that is good enough.
PLAYING THE SHOW
I have played four productions of 13, and was due to play it again in the spring of 2020, before COVID-19 closed the world’s theatres. The show fizzes with energy. The guitar is exposed and has a prominent role throughout; the material is always interesting, and few guitar books are more fun to play. It was the first musical I ever performed, the life-changing result of a chance enquiry from Mercer Island’s Youth Theatre Northwest. Most memorably, when I played the show in December 2011, Jason Robert Brown was in the opening night audience, an exciting but slightly unnerving experience. After the show he was kind enough to sign the front of my hastily-prepared combined guitar book, which is now a treasured souvenir.
That production ( at Seattle’s ACT Theatre) benefitted from having all the resources and expertise available to a professional theatre. The stage set was a 3-level metal frame, which had the band perched on top looking out into the amphitheater-style seating, and shook when the actors danced.
EVOLUTION OF THE SCORE / CAST RECORDINGS
Brown’s original vision for 13 was that it would have a cast and band of thirteen 13-year-olds, and have thirteen musical numbers. The show was modified significantly during its 2007-2008 development, undergoing changes right up to the Broadway opening. It was made available for licensing in September 2009, having undergone further revisions following closure of the Broadway production.
In 2012, Brown made further minor revisions to the score for the National Youth Music Theatre’s short run in London’s West End, in August of that year. Those changes were incorporated into the licensed materials in 2013, and remain the current version of the show. It currently has seventeen musical numbers (the 2013 changes were tweaks to “Thirteen/Becoming A Man” and “Opportunity”, plus the addition of a short scene transition after “Tell Her”).
A Netflix movie adaptation of the show was announced in July 2019, and is expected to feature further revisions to the existing songs and maybe some new songs as well.
There are three cast recording albums available for 13: two versions of the Broadway production and one of the West End production.
Original Broadway Cast (Original Version) – 2008: the cast recording was made over Labor Day weekend 2008, ahead of the first Broadway preview performance in mid-September (YouTube has a nice video of the recording session). It differs from the current (2013) version of the show in the following respects:
- Invitations – not included on this release.
- Opportunity – original version included (occurs later in the show and has different lyrics).
- Here I Come – included on this release, subsequently cut from the show.
- Being A Geek – not included on this release.
- Good Enough – not included on this release.
Original Broadway Cast (Deluxe Version) – 2009: a two-disc version of the Broadway cast recording, which incorporates most (but not all) of the changes which had been made by the end of the Broadway run.
- Invitations – not included on this release.
- Opportunity – revised (current) version included on this release.
- Being A Geek – included on this release.
- Good Enough – not included on this release (it had not been recorded during the session).
The original version of “Opportunity” and the cut song “Here I Come” are included as bonus material, together with karaoke versions of most of the songs, “single” edits of “13” and “A Little More Homework”, and demo versions of “ A Little More Homework” and “Getting Over It” (another cut song) performed by Jason Robert Brown.
Original West End Cast Recording – 2012: this recording most closely matches the current licensed version of the show, including all of the major numbers, omitting only a few scene transitions. Notably, “Invitations” (titled “One Day In October”), and “Good Enough” are included.
For anyone preparing to perform the show, I recommend listening to both the Broadway (Deluxe) and West End versions. The West End version has the advantage of closely matching the current materials for the show, whereas the Broadway (Deluxe) version is, in my opinion, a better recording, featuring more accomplished and assured vocal and instrumental performances throughout. The Broadway (Deluxe) version also comes with instrumental “karaoke” versions of most of the songs, providing a useful backing track for performers preparing for the show prior to arrival of the band. The recordings are available from Ghostlight Records, and can be found on YouTube.
ORCHESTRATION, BAND AND SOUND DESIGN
13 is scored for a 6-piece rock band, comprising two guitars, bass, drums and two keyboards; both Guitar 1 and Guitar 2 are mostly electric guitar. This isn’t a huge ensemble, but the instrumentation and nature of the material mean that the sound is dense and full, so sound design really needs some attention. The show is mostly performed in smaller theatres and schools, often with limited technical resources, which can make creating a good sound mix and balancing it against the vocals a challenge. Some things to think about:
Sound Design Considerations
In smaller productions, sound design very often gets short-changed in terms of attention and resources. This is a fatal mistake for a rock show, where lousy sound can result in frustration for audience, cast and band alike. Whatever resources are available, I recommend spending adequate time to make the sound of the band as clear as possible, and balance it against the singers. A few tips:
- The easiest way to manage the band sound for this show is to have no amplifiers on stage and input all instruments directly to the house. This gives complete control over the sound.
- Consider screening off the drums, to prevent them overwhelming the mix (or maybe use electronic drums if available).
- Spend time on the EQ of Guitar 1 and Guitar 2. One effective way to get some sonic separation between the two Guitars is to EQ them so that they sound different. This is best achieved by using different guitars (e.g. humbucker vs. single coil pickups) and/or different pre-amplifier settings, with final EQ adjustments at the mixing desk (if there is one).
- If the band is not being mixed via the house (i.e. it’s playing live into the auditorium), be prepared to spend some extra time to get the balance right during rehearsals, because you won’t be able to do anything about it later.
While reduced orchestration is never ideal, limited space, sound design resources, budget or availability of musicians may dictate consideration of a smaller band. With only six musicians there isn’t much scope to eliminate musicians for 13, but there are two options available:
- Combine Guitars 1 & 2: it is not possible to adequately cover the material if either Guitar 1 or Guitar 2 is eliminated, but it is possible to prepare a combined Guitar book which covers just about everything very nicely (more on this below and full details here). Reducing to one Guitar player in this way will also make sound balancing easier, so this is the first option to consider, provided somebody is prepared to make the effort to prepare the combined Guitar book, and the guitarist has the chops to play it.
- Eliminate Keyboard 2: this is a feasible but much less satisfactory option than combining the Guitar books, and will result in some loss to the overall sound of the music, even though Keyboard 1 does most of the heavy lifting. I don’t recommend doing this.
Use of Teen Musicians
Jason Robert Brown intended 13 to be played by a band of teen musicians (this was a selling point of the Broadway production). This is a great idea in principle, but is often not a practical proposition. The music isn’t super-difficult, but neither is it particularly easy to play. A Music Director considering using teen musicians will need to find talented, available students who are prepared to put time and effort into learning the 100-page score. Since these relatively inexperienced musicians will have little pit experience, more time will have to be allowed for band rehearsals than for a typical production. Of the four productions I have played, only one has had a teen musician, a bassist, who was excellent. Summary: if they are available the idea of using teen musicians is wonderful, provided that the production team is prepared to make the effort necessary to rehearse the band properly. To do otherwise is unfair to the young band, the cast and ultimately the audience.
A brief note on intermissions: 13 has no intermission – it’s intended to be played straight through. But theatres like intermissions, and even the Broadway run of 13 had one. I recently saw a video where Brown described adding the song “Here I Come” to the show to provide a rousing finale for “Act 1” – the song is included on the Broadway Cast Recording, but has not been in any licensed version of the show. Every production I have played has included an intermission at the end of “Getting Ready”, then started “Act 2” with a brief reprise of the end of that number, leading straight into “Any Minute”.
GENERAL NOTES ON THE GUITAR BOOKS
13’s two Guitar books are fun and interesting to play, and challenging without being excessively difficult – they are after all written with young musicians in mind. Guitars 1 and 2 share the spotlight, although Guitar 1 is definitely the more difficult of the two books. Both books require electric and acoustic guitars. Guitar 1 has acoustic in only three numbers, while Guitar 2 has acoustic for seven. Another challenging aspect for some young performers might be that the show is one act and sung through, so this is a lot of music to play at one sitting, without a break.
Jason Robert Brown famously prepares his own orchestrations so, as you might expect, the Guitar books are accurate and reasonably detailed. They make more extensive use of slash rhythm notation (rhythms spelt out, but not chord voicings) than those for his other shows, which generally makes reading the music easier. However, some numbers use a lot of complex and compound chords, and you have to devote some time to working out appropriate voicings to bring out the best in the score, depending on how much time you are prepared to invest to it. Considering that the music is intended for relatively inexperienced teens, a little more detail in some of these numbers might have been helpful. As an example, I provide an excerpt below where I think providing specific voicings would be beneficial.
The books are mostly free of errors. I have been able to identify only the following:
- #3A, “Invitations”: the Guitar 2 book has four additional measures of rest numbered m.96-99 at the end of the number, which do not exist in any of the other books.
- #4A, “Kendra Dream”: in the 2009 version of the score, the Keyboard 1 (Piano Conductor) score has this number written a tone lower than in all the other books. I believe this was corrected in the 2013 version.
- #12, “Bad Bad News”: in m.52 the Guitar 2 book has an E7 chord whereas the Guitar 1 book has E13. I’m not sure whether this difference is an error or not.
The score provides alternate keys for some of the songs sung by male cast members (whose voices may be changing), so two versions of these songs are provided. When playing the show, you have to paperclip the unused pages together to facilitate efficient page turns. Otherwise, all page turns are good, although some are quite fast.
A Combined Guitar Book
As mentioned above, playing the show with one guitarist is one of the few options available for reducing the instrumentation for 13. To do so necessitates preparing a “combined book” to adequately cover the material, because the two parts are well integrated, and the spotlight is shared between them. If you try to just play Guitar 1, dispensing with Guitar 2, you end up with holes in the orchestration.
I have played a combined book in every production of 13 that I have been involved with. Combining the books was a lot of work, both in terms of working out what to play, and then preparing the charts once I had done so, but the resulting book covers the material well. It is busy, more challenging than either of the individual books, and one of my absolute favorite books to play. I provide details of how I combined the two Guitar books here.
Equipment requirements for 13 are quite straightforward compared with most modern musicals. Both Guitar 1 and Guitar 2 books call for acoustic and electric guitar and, as noted above, I recommend taking steps to ensure that the two electric guitars sound sufficiently different, to avoid a mushy overall mix.
I recommend having the following basic sounds available for the two electric guitars:
Guitar 1: clean, clean with wah, light overdrive, heavy overdrive, distortion.
Guitar 2: clean, clean with chorus, light overdrive, heavy overdrive, distortion.
If equipment availability is an issue, the range of tones can be simplified further, to clean, light overdrive and distortion. The wah for Guitar 1 is essential, but the chorus pedal for Guitar 2 is not. On this basis, and assuming most amplifiers have clean and dirty channels, you could get clean and distortion from the amplifier, light overdrive from a pedal, and the only essential effect is a wah for Guitar 1. I also recommend that both guitarists have a volume pedal in their signal chain, because dynamics is always an important consideration in musical theatre.
My rig for “13”
My own rig for 13 is a little more complex; it has evolved over the four productions I have worked on, and is influenced by the fact that I have always played a combined guitar book. The following description is of the setup I used for a 2015 production; I don’t propose to make any significant changes the next time I play it.
I used a Tom Anderson Drop Top Classic electric guitar and a Small Jumbo acoustic guitar made by Atkin Guitars. My Anderson is a “fat Strat”-type instrument, which has single coil pickups in the neck and middle positions, and a humbucker at the bridge which can be coil-tapped. This is a really versatile instrument (as I have said in many articles), allowing you to get all the thick, heavy tones you want for the distorted numbers, and clean, bright tones for the clean numbers.
I used a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe (Mk III – last time I looked they were on Mk IV) amplifier. Fender amplifiers have a great tone that isn’t too distinctively colored and really suits ensemble playing. I used a Shure SM 57 microphone to send the sound to the house mix. In future I plan to use a DI for the electric guitar.
As noted above, the basic guitar sounds I used for 13 are clean, light overdrive, heavy overdrive and distortion. This is how I obtained them:
- Clean: the clean channel on my Fender amp, with EQ adjusted to suit.
- Light Overdrive: an Ibanez TS9-DX pedal modified by AnalogMan (in TS9 mode), for just a little twangy growl. Used on numbers like “Lamest Place…”, “Invitations”, and parts of “Bad Bad News”, and a few others.
- Heavy Overdrive: the Overdrive channel of my Fender amp, set to “More Overdrive”. Used on numbers requiring a big, heavier rock sound, like “Thirteen”, the end of “Getting Ready” and “Brand New You”.
- Distortion: a Mad Professor Mighty Red Distortion Used for full on heavy distortion, in “Opportunity”, “Any Minute”, and the various appearances of the “Bloodmaster Theme”.
Other effects pedals, used more sparingly, were:
- Wah: I used a Real McCoy RMC FL3 “tunable” wah, set for a funky sound, for “Hey Kendra”. Wah on/off switches tend to be pretty heavy (so you don’t accidentally turn them off), and I needed to be able to switch the wah in and out quickly several times during the song, as I was playing a combined book. For this reason I routed the wah through a Boss LS-2 line selector, and used that to switch the wah in and out as needed, while keeping my other foot on the wah throughout.
- Compressor: I used a Keeley 4-knob compressor, mainly to get a bit of sustain in numbers with lead breaks, and in “Tell Her”, where I wanted a bit more warmth in the tone.
- Chorus: I used an AnalogMan Bi-Chorus, set to give a gentle shimmer, for “Hey Kendra” and “Hey Kendra” and the volume swell chords under the rabbis’ chants in “Thirteen”, “Being A Geek” and “Evan’s Haftorah”.
- Volume Pedal: I used an Ernie Ball VP JR., as always. Every pit guitarist should have a volume pedal on their board!
- Reverb: I used a TC Electronics Hall of Fame, set to a big “Hall” reverb for each of the rabbis’ chant sections (together with the shimmery Chorus).
- Boost: I used a BMF Fat Bastard clean boost for all the major lead breaks.
- Parametric EQ: I had an Empress Para EQ on the board in case I needed it to help with the house mix, but I didn’t use it.
The pedals were mounted on a Pedaltrain 3 pedalboard (these things are so useful, I have three different-sized models!), and powered by a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2 PLUS power supply mounted beneath the board (I have since upgraded to a CIOKS power supply). A GigRig Cinco Cinco patch bay was also mounted beneath the right side of the board, so that the cables from the guitar and out to the amplifier could be routed neatly on one side of the board.
The signal chain was as follows:
Guitar → Patch Bay → Tuner → Boss LS-2 Line Selector (with wah pedal in a loop) → Compressor → TS9 Overdrive → Mighty Red Distortion → Parametric EQ (not used) → Chorus → Volume pedal → Reverb → Clean Boost → Patch Bay → Fender Amplifier input.
I didn’t use the amplifier effects loop for this setup. I also had a separate footswitch to one side of the pedalboard to switch between Clean and “More Overdrive” channels on the amplifier.
13 was my first experience as a pit musician. I am grateful to Youth Theatre Northwest and Broadway Bound Children’s Theatre for giving me these and many other opportunities in my early days in musical theatre.
LINKS – OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE
Details of a Combined Guitar book for “13”
LINKS – EXTERNAL
13 – Wikipedia entry
13 The Musical homepage
13 – Licensing (MTI)
13 – Broadway cast recording (2009): Ghostlight Records, Amazon, YouTube playlist
13 – West End cast recording (2012): Ghostlight Records, Amazon, YouTube playlist
13 – Broadway cast album recording session video (YouTube)
13 – Broadway opening night video (YouTube)
New York Times interview with teen band for Broadway production
Round-up of reviews of 13 Broadway production
Jason Robert Brown – home page / Twitter
“In Conversation with Jason Robert Brown – 2005 interview
The Stage: 2015 Jason Robert Brown Interview
“13 – A Roll Call” – 2009 article on history of the show by Jason Robert Brown
Playbill article on closure of Broadway production of 13
Playbill article on Netflix movie adaptation of 13
Youth Theatre Northwest, Mercer Island
Broadway Bound Children’s Theatre, Seattle
ACT Theatre, Seattle