Choreographer Jamal Sims, DP Adam Santelli and casting directors Kristian Charbonier and Bernard Tesley helped director Tamra Davis realize her vision in adapting “13: The Musical” from the Broadway stage to Netflix, where it is now streaming
Davis, who had directed more than 150 music videos, and had done episodes of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical,” says she not only wanted to acknowledge classic Broadway tropes but also “bring all my knowledge from music videos and pop culture and what I think will appeal to contemporary kids.” She and Sims created high-energy numbers that reference classic musicals as well as TikTok trends in dance and camera moves.
“13: The Musical” follows Evan (Eli Golden), a New York City boy who’s deep into studying for his bar mitzvah — and planning the party for it (he calls it the “Jewish Super Bowl”). But his parents are divorced, and mom (Debra Messing) decides that she and Eli should move back to their hometown in Indiana. There, Evan makes new friends and adapts to the Midwest. He even manages to have a great bar mitzvah party.
The film kicks off before the move west, with a song and dance through Manhattan as Evan sings about the angst of being 13. He’s joined along the way, Pied Piper-style, by a gaggle of other teens, who sing and dance through Manhattan’s Upper West Side while the number climaxes in Central Park in an homage to the movie “Hair.”
“New York has a natural upbeat pace to it already — the cabs going by, the cars going by, the people walking by. To me, it already feels like a musical,” says Sims, who was inspired by his young cast to push the envelope. “They really brought their A game and they were so professional. And they were so down to try anything. I mean, we were dancing down pretty steep hills in Central Park. Their ambition and drive really shows on camera.”
Sims had a quick four weeks of rehearsal time with the cast before the shoot began. After New York, the production moved to Canada, which subbed for Indiana.
In Canada, the casting team found talented locals from gymnastics clubs and dance troupes to round out the extras, who all submitted audition videos. “They were all pulled from the best dance academies, the best singers from all over Ontario,” says Davis. One big number, “Opportunity,” sees Lucy (Frankie McNellis) singing in a variety of styles, including rapping, backed by dancers and gymnasts who go from cheerleading routines to dance squad numbers to jazz routines to marching band drills.
Sims says the cast was eager to try everything he threw at them. “They wanted to go up in the air, they wanted to fly, they want to flip,” he says. “So we put it all in.”
Davis shot the number with transitions and camera angles that mimic what kids see on TikTok, even having a camera rig designed so it could be flipped on its side for one particular shot. All the dance numbers were shot with two or three cameras. Sims took advantage of the environments available, including a school cafeteria, athletic fields and even a movie theater.
Golden notes that Sims played to the strengths of the different actors. A good singer (he’s releasing an EP later this year), he says he’s not as proficient a dancer. “I can do things that people can’t, but I can’t dance like some of my castmates, like JD [McCrary, as Brett]. He’s so good at dancing — and I can’t do what he does — but I can somewhat move.
And Jamal always made me feel relaxed and made me look [the] best I possibly could.”
Inclusion was also important, not only with the casting of people of color, but also body types of every kind, and one of the main characters, Archie, played by Jonathan Lengel, uses a wheelchair. It was great to see him up there moving and singing and dancing, which so many people think [is] not really possible [for the differently abled],” says Sims.