January 4, 2007
Will ‘13’ Be Lucky?
Jason Robert Brown takes a chance on penning a bar mitzvah-themed rock musical
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"I wanted to create a Jewish kid from the Upper West Side -- a character who was familiar to me -- and take him out of his comfort zone, to a place where he had to prove himself," Brown says. "And then I thought about what made 13 such a powerfully resonant age for me, and of course the bar mitzvah is the most obvious thing that comes to mind."
The Jewish rite of passage becomes a metaphor for the show's coming-of-age themes -- as does Evan's Haftorah, Isaiah 42:7. In the text, God calls on Jews to "open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon and those who sit in darkness out of prison." (The "prisoners" are victims of political social injustice, according to some interpretations.)
The divine instructions "speak not just to just Evan's job in the show, but also to the Jewish male's job, according to the Torah: to be a leader, to step forward, to take responsibility, to take action," Brown says.
Of course, the non-Jewish students ask na?ve (and hilarious) questions about Evan's background: They wonder if "bar mitzvah" is a synonym for "Bon Jovi;" whether Jerry Seinfeld will attend; and whether they will have to speak backwards and lift Evan up in a chair. Evan has to explain that the Hebrew is read backwards, and the chair is for weddings.
When he assumes his rabbi can't possibly understand what it is to be an outsider, the rabbi responds, "Oh, I know something about it. I'm a rabbi in Indiana."
To write and direct the show, Brown selected artists who have previously turned their own memories of teen angst into fiction. Elish, 46, wrote a 2002 young-adult novel, "Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case," which describes a Jewish 13-year-old's jealousies and libidinous fantasies.
Director Todd Graff, 47, based his semiautobiographical film, "Camp," (2003) on the year he stole a car, and his alarmed Jewish parents shipped him off to theater camp. The teenage Todd ended up loving the experience, even though the most inspiring teacher was also a "nut job" who threw folding chairs at students when they messed up during rehearsals.
Graff is far more benevolent with his actors during a "13" rehearsal, smiling and nodding as they gamely practice a new number involving fancy footwork and tongue-twisting lyrics.
In between scene work, the boys flip cell-phone props at each other, and Ricky Ashley, who plays Evan (see sidebar) flirts with one of the female performers while scribbling a note on the back of her script, which is decorated with floral stickers (she makes a face and feigns anger).
Sometimes even Brown has to crack a smile at his performers' youthful antics. He insists he is "a considerably different person than the guy who wrote 'The Last Five Years." During his own last five years, Brown has remarried, had a daughter, released a solo album, begun teaching at USC, conducted orchestras all over the world and performed with his acclaimed rock band, The Caucasian Rhythm Kings. Although he continues to be prickly at times, he feels his own life's events have pushed him to a new level of maturity, not unlike what Evan experiences in the show.
So, OK, it's taken a while for the 36-year-old to write a musical that's unabashedly optimistic.
"13," he admits, "has been gestating for a long time. Probably about 23 years."
"13" opens Jan. 7 and continues through Feb. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum. Tickets: 213-638-2772 or visit www.CentertheatreGroup.org.
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