Thursday, October 9, 2008

13 (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: I would've really liked this musical when I was 13.

13 is one of this season's new, big-budget Broadway musicals. It's the story of 12-year-old Evan who is forced to move to small-town Indiana from Manhattan when his parents get divorced. As his Bar Mitzvah nears, he has to get the popular kids to come to his awesome party, thereby solidifying his cool-kid status through his high school years. The music and lyrics, by Jason Robert Brown (he also wrote The Last Five Years, one of my favorite scores), are energetic and sometimes funny. The book, by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, couldn't be more contrived if it were an episode of Saved by the Bell.

Luckily, the cast of 13 is quite good and all are on the track for tremendous success in adulthood. I actually spent a little too much time in my head casting them in future productions of Hairspray and Grease. And if reality is anything like my imagination, they'll grow into dynamite performers. These teenagers are well-cast; talented enough to pull off the show and awkward enough to be completely age-appropriate. They're also bursting with energy and sheer joy for the opportunity. As a result, they're fun to watch.

There are some good components to this show although ultimately, it falls flat. I laughed out loud on a number of occasions (for example, the kids attend Dan Quayle Middle School). And some of the music rocks pretty hard; the opening number, appropriately called "13/Becoming a Man", has been stuck in my head all day. Also, the band is surprisingly solid, considering they themselves are 5 teenagers. But at the end of the day, the creativity is sparse at the expense of telling a simple, obvious story with a simple, obvious resolution. It lacks the "wow" moments that make live theatre so incredibly powerful. And ultimately, that's a disservice to both the audience and the performers. The kids on stage need something deeper to play, the kids in the audience can handle a more sincere story, and the adults in the audience deserve something to grab onto.

For what it's worth, the audience around me loved this the point where the father behind me was verbally acknowledging the action on stage ("ooo's" when the characters kissed and "oh no's" when a moment got confrontational). There were tweens everywhere I looked; the median age of the audience was probably around 20. And if I were 13 and seeing this show, I would've been in utter bliss. But I'm not, and I wasn't.

Which makes me wonder who this show is really for. If it's designed to pull teenagers to the theatre, make it accessible and relatable, and capture a fleeting market (usually distracted by video games, tv, and other things on screens) then it's appealing perfectly to its target. If it's also supposed to resonate with adults, reminding them of their own teenage years, it misses by a long shot. That's unfortunate because premise-wise 13 taps into a great genre.

13 is a perfect show to take your kids to. If nothing else, it has more integrity than the Disney schlock currently on Broadway and it appeals to an older kid demographic as well. I'd bet big money that kids and teens will really enjoy this show. And there are certainly some well-executed moments throughout the production; it's an entertaining 90 minutes but it's not likely to evoke much emotion in anyone over 18.

(13 plays at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th between 7th and 8th Avenues. Show times are (until Oct. 13) Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm. After Oct. 13 show times are Tuesday through Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm. For tickets visit Visit for more show info.)

1 comment:

Dan Dinero said...

As I've been talking with people about this show, I've noticed that some have enjoyed it, and many others have thought it was awful. Briefly, I loved it- it was one of the most exciting things I have seen in a long time. I urge everyone to go see it. So, why?

First, 13 is an original musical- it is not based on a book, movie, sitcom, cartoon character, thrill ride, or who knows what else. Of course, this by itself does not make it inherently better, but at the very least, we have the opportunity to hear a new story told by the authors, rather than just re-told by them. Maybe I romanticize a bit, but this is one of the things I enjoy about seeing new drama (as opposed to musicals)- we hear an author's voice- not an adaptation of someone else’s work.

Second, it is by Jason Robert Brown, one of my favorite contemporary composers of musical theatre. Again- having enjoyed his previous work does not mean one will enjoy 13. It is very much Jason Robert Brown- those familiar with his previous work (especially The Last Five Years or Songs For A New World) should sense JRB’s composing style here. Personally, I think his work in 13 is kind of incredible, but not obviously so- but to explain why, I should take a step back and explain why I enjoyed this show so much.

What is this show about? It is about being thirteen years old- an uncomfortable, awkward period in one’s life, but also a period at which one begins to turn into an adult. The main issue in the plot concerns who will come to the main character’s bar mitzvah. This is significant- the bar mitzvah is the point at which a Jewish boy becomes a Jewish man- when they come of age and are responsible for their own actions and adherence to Jewish law. And that is precisely the issues that 13 deals with- taking responsibility for your actions, figuring out what kind of a person you want to be, etc. Granted- themes we’ve seen dealt with over and over again. So what makes this worth seeing?

To my mind, 13 captures this life in transition- this “double life” of the child AND adult in one- perfectly. We get a story told BOTH by the boy who is going through it, AND one told by the adult who wrote the material. Why is this different from other shows with child characters written by adults? In 13, the entire cast is 13 (or thereabouts). There are no adult characters to counter the kids we see- the life of the thirteen year old comes through loud and clear. In a sense, since there are no adults on stage, WE become those adults, interacting with the teenager characters in a way we are never forced to do when we watch a show that has both teenagers and adults.

BUT, we aren't JUST given the life of a teenager- adult life comes through too- through JRB’s music, we never stop hearing the voice of the adult JRB looking back on his time as a teenager. His music deftly captures this aspect of reflection- it is “self-aware” and full of “hindsight” precisely BECAUSE this is not just a musical about being thirteen, but about what it was like when we all were thirteen, and what we have learned since (if anything, that is). JRB’s music is suitably peppy and poppy and catchy and (I hate this word) “youthful”- the music a 13-year old might write- but it is also clever and creative and complex- music a 13-year old could never write. I’m not enough of a musicologist to know exactly how JRB did this (it is in more than just the lyrics)- but I’ve seen enough musicals about kids, and with kids in the cast, to recognize that JRB is doing something different here.

One other thing- having an entire cast of teenagers (all of whom I think are terrific, and I am hoping both Graham Phillips and Aaron Simon Gross are remembered come Tony time) does something else- something I would never have expected. When they break into song, it makes complete sense- the song is heightened emotion because EVERYTHING is heightened emotion when you’re 13. Of COURSE you’re going to be upset about who might be coming to your Bar Mitzvah, and think that if it doesn’t go perfectly your life will be over. And this heightened drama is the stuff of musicals- it is why a whole musical can be built around who Laurey takes to the dance. Lately, I have found myself missing the excitement and the “Drama” (with a capital D- the “drama” in the most minor, everyday decisions) in a lot of new musicals. Either they are silly and ironic, or serious and intense- while they may be terrific pieces that I love going back to- this sense of the musical as heightened reality is often missing. In other words, recent musicals strive for the most “real” depiction of everyday life possible. But it is a MUSICAL! But I didn’t realize this was missing until I saw 13. So yes, I am basically saying that seeing 13 made musical theater exciting again.

Will everyone love this show? No- but that is theatre. And is it the BEST show ever? Of course not. But it is pretty darn good, and I think it is a lot smarter than many give it credit for. It works on many levels, and for that reason alone, I think it is a better musical than many of the new musicals currently running (I haven’t seen Billy Elliott yet.) And of course this is just my opinion- but I think that some don't like 13 because it doesn't quite fit the mold of what a musical "should" be. And that is because 13 ISN’T like other things you have seen. I think this is exciting- indeed, something worth celebrating.

One final thing- of all of the musicals “marketed to families” (something I generally abhor- it tends to lead to mindless crap such as The Little Mermaid), 13 is one of the best shows I can think of to take kids to. It will challenge them without condescending to them, it will excite them and most likely, it will stay with them. I still remember watching Daisy Eagen win the Tony- just a couple years older than Eagen, I was electrified (and just a little bit jealous)- wow- there are kids who do Broadway! No surprise that Secret Garden was the first Broadway musical I saw. So I can just imagine the excitement of my young self at seeing 13. (Of course, I had parents taking me to community theater productions of Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd by the time I was 10- so maybe I’m not so representative.) I think this is suitable for kids (I’m guessing age 10 and up?), and what’s more- I think they will love it. (Plus- I just noticed there is a study guide on the show’s website that parents might find useful).

If you’re one of those jaded theater-goers who hates everything, you won’t like 13 either. But if you enjoy seeing new musicals because you truly enjoy the genre- go see 13.