I’ma put it all out there: I’ve been a fan of Jason Robert Brown for some time now. From his bittersweet depiction of a marriage gone wrong in “The Last Five Years,” to his haunting, sprawling Southern epic “Parade,” even to his surprisingly soulful song cycle “Songs For a New World,” I’ve been down with the JRB from very early on in my ongoing love affair with the sultry vixen we call musical theater. His music is both traditional in its reverence for the history of musicals past, and progressive in that his melodies are fresh, unique, and original. Brown’s lyrics are, for the most part, quite nuanced, by musical theater standards, and his characters are all the more multi-faceted as a result. In short, JRB is the real deal, meng.
That said, I was understandably very excited when Mahotma and I attended a production of Brown’s new musical “13” at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre last night. I knew the musical was about a thirteen-year-old kid who moves from New York to Indiana when his parents split up, I knew that the kid’s Bar Mitzvah was going to be a central theme to the narrative (JRB, much like acclaimed author and bona fide MoJaMa hero Philip Roth, seems destined to weave his Judaism into every story he tells), and I even knew the New York Times gave it a pretty so-so review. Despite these warning signs, though, I was undeterred. Even when Mahotma and I showed up in our blazers and cardigan sweaters, very possibly the only non-teens or non-parents-of-teens in the building, I shuffled into our seats in the center of the orchestra section and was ready to be delighted. Bring on the show!
I don’t know what I expected. No, I do know what I expected. I expected a dark exploration into the minds of a cross section of surly, disaffected Midwestern youth, with a dissonant score sung in impeccable harmony by a cast of malnourished, sallow adolescents. I wanted a thematic hybrid of Brown’s “Parade” with “Thirteen,” that movie with Holly Hunter and Evan Rachel Wood where those girls, like, steal shit and take drugs, and, like, do it and stuff. I don’t know. I wanted substance; an introspective look at how crushingly impossible it is to grow up without being irreparably wounded in a post-9/11 culture propelled by fear, uncertainty, and death.
What I got was essentially a slightly artier version of “High School Musical.” Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. Or, rather, I grew to enjoy it—during the opening number, as I came to terms with exactly what kind of show I was in for, I was initially against the whole thing. The lead off song wasn’t nearly catchy enough for how cheeky and abrasive it was. The cast, dressed in what appeared to be a forty-something costume designer’s idea of what teenagers are wearing these days, was animated and enthusiastic, but a bit too inconsistent when it came to vocal accuracy and, ya know, good acting. The entire band, with the exception of the lead keyboard player, was comprised of teens who looked a little too nerdy to be sporting the faux-rocker haircuts and pop-punk attire that essentially gave the production a sort of a Jonas Brothers-light type vibe. We were in for a long evening.
Over the course of the performance, though (the show, thankfully, is performed without an intermission and runs just over ninety minutes, so at least it has brevity on its side), I started to come around. Once I’d accepted that we weren’t going to witness anything transcendent on stage that night, I allowed myself to sort of take in the production for what it was: entertainment for teenagers. And with that in mind, the show is, admittedly, kind of a good time. While it’s probably JRB’s weakest score to date, there are some isolated pockets of melody where he just brings it home in a way that makes you remember how incredible a songwriter he can be (but are still wishing you were listening to the heartbreaking opening strains of “Still Hurting”). And the kids are fun—while they weren’t always technically flawless in their execution of the show, it turned out to be quite refreshing to watch a cast you can tell is having an amazing time. In short, “13” is a feel-good puff piece—it’s not going to last long on Broadway, and it’s not going to be remembered in any sort of musical theater canon, but it’ll serve as great fun for busloads of middle school students on class field trips as it enjoys its tenure on Broadway, and I’m sure it’ll live on in school productions for a least a decade after it leaves the Great White Way. And JRB will make a pretty penny on the whole ordeal, I’m sure. Good for him.
After seeing “13,” though, I did start thinking about depictions of adolescence in musicals past, and I began wondering how effectively and accurately the struggle of those formative, awkward years has been previously portrayed. Is it possible to capture the perilous struggle that accompanies the journey through the teens in a manner that is both artistically poignant and accessible to an array of different age groups?
Yes, it is. From “Spring Awakening” to “A Chorus Line,” musical theater has long been exploring the perils of adolescence on stage. It is a period fraught with uncertainty, and angst, and urgency, and it can be an incredibly effective thematic element when skillfully executed. Who among us cannot relate to the awkward, vital longing that propels “Chorus Line’s” excellent ode to the teenage years, “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…”? How can we not be viscerally moved by the reckless, blind love that Tony and Maria experience in “West Side Story”? How can we not understand Josh’s elation when he celebrates his first sexual experience in “Coffee Black,” a show-stopping Act II number from the commercially unsuccessful (but, really, quite good) “Big: The Musical”? Because of the inherent nostalgia associated with the teenage years, adolescence on stage can prove to be quite moving given the proper artistic treatment.
While I concede that the stakes are indeed much higher in the aforementioned productions, it doesn’t change the fact that “13” ultimately doesn’t make a lasting impression. Jason Robert Brown and co. acknowledge that growing up is tough, but their message is nowhere near significant enough to make us remember how important our struggles actually were to us when we were thirteen. As a result, “13” is fun but shallow—it’s certainly amusing to watch, but fails to attain any sort of meaningful emotional effect.
The kid who played lead guitar was really good, though.