In a NYC studio, an intense dance rehearsal is underway. Concentrated dancers follow as choreographer Christopher Gatelli demonstrates lightning-speed footwork. After he teaches, each dancer repeats the movement until it’s perfect.
A few minutes later, there’s an enthusiastic celebration as the team pins down the steps. But these aren’t just any performers—they’re the cast of Broadway’s 13, the new musical that played at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. from December 2006 to February 2007, Goodspeed Opera House’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT, last summer and finally hit Broadway in October. The cast is made up of professional performers with acting, singing and dancing chops to rival the industry’s elite. But the most unusual—and best!—aspect of the entire team is that they’re all teens playing characters their own age in a show about being 13!
Penned by Tony-winner Jason Robert Brown, the story centers on Evan, a 13-year-old New Yorker. He’s uprooted by his parents’ divorce and must make his way in foreign Indiana. Although navigating the Big Apple had been a cinch, Evan’s new life isn’t. He deals with cliques and must figure out how he fits in. For anyone who’s ever felt confused, frustrated and alone during those awkward teen years (meaning all humans), this show strikes a personal chord.
To get the inside scoop, DS sat down with Gatelli to learn more about the show that’s making teen trials come to vivid life with huge dance numbers, enthusiastic songs and plenty of teenage emotion.
The Man with Moves
Unassuming and smiley with huge brown eyes, Gatelli has that inviting persona that makes you want to tell him about your day. His choreography chops are equally amenable: He’s created the moves for funny hits like Altar Boyz, plus classic ones like South Pacific (for which his choreography was nominated for a Tony award!). Clearly, his swing to 13 isn’t out of sync with his diverse career.
“The thing that runs through all of my work is my sensibility,” says Gatelli. “I always try to find the humor and focus on storytelling.”
In 13, this means instead of trying to make the cast look uniform or overly trained, he focuses on their strengths. During “Here I Come” at the end of the first act, all of the characters groove on Dance Dance Revolution sets. While the footwork is fast and specific, the arms are loose and individualized.
A sharper “step” piece is set to “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani. The rhythms are fierce, the energy is explosive and the dancers hit each count precisely. Moves that start off straight on Gatelli morph into bouncy, lanky stylings on the cast.
“Even though there are set dances, we’re not trying to make it like everyone has perfect technique,” explains Gatelli. “We want the kids to be kids—that’s what makes it exciting and charming.”
To put his theories and style into practice, Gatelli requested an individualized performance right from the audition: “I said ‘Just be yourself and let go,’” he explains. “It’s way more interesting to me to have a group of individuals than a chorus.” (However, he adds that ballet and technique classes are essential.)
As a result, watching the dancers in rehearsal is thrilling; no two are doing the steps exactly the same way. Often, these differences are reflections of what’s going on with the character—and the cast member. “Some of them have grown inches since Goodspeed in Connecticut,” says Gatelli. “Steps that felt good before are awkward now, because as they grow, they lose their center. But I embrace that!“
The Teenage Team
Even with all the challenges, the benefits of an all-teen cast are obvious, showcasing these young performers as dedicated and energetic professionals. Gatelli notes that upon arriving at rehearsals, he often finds them working on their own. “The best part is they are relentless with their energy,” he says. “They want to, and will, do things for as long as it takes to get it right.”
To harness focus amid this deluge of passion takes careful handling. This is especially true when working on material that cast members involved in the early-summer Goodspeed production know, but added cast members don’t (three new cast members and six swings have rounded out the Broadway roster). So, to combat any possible boredom, Gatelli adds an arm or changes a rhythm to keep the entire team on their toes.
When all the hard work of the young wonders and Gatelli comes together, an authentic, heartfelt show emerges. “13 is so true to life. We’ve all felt like an outsider, tried to do the right thing, seen the consequences of our actions for the first time—it’s all dealt with in this show,” he says. “It’s so wonderful when you realize after watching: Amazing teens just did all that.”