Jewschool.com: 13, The Musical

Coauthored with The Wandering Jew. Originally published on Jewschool.com

1 (dlevy). Thursday night, TheWanderingJew and I saw 13, a Broadway musical with songs by Jason Robert Brown, book by Dan Elish and Jason Robert Brown. The show tells the story of Evan Goldman, a 12-year-old kid from the Upper West Side of New York whose parents get divorced on the cusp of his bar mitzvah. His mom moves him to Indiana where he must make new friends in time to have anyone at his Bar Mitzvah party, while trying to figure out what exactly it means to become a man. (Thanks to the good folks at the Theater Development Fund, which provides access to discount tickets to students, educators, and folks who work at non-profits…)

2 (dlevy). It is very tempting for me to write an entire dissertation on this show. I am itching to trace the reflections of Sondheim (tell me you don’t hear hints of “Merrily We Roll Along” in the title song) and figure 13′s place in the growing body of Jason Robert Brown’s work and rhapsodize on how the present Broadway season and world economy frame this show both for its audience and its creators… but that’s a bit outside the scope of the Jewschool readership’s primary areas of interest. I’m going to trust that TheWanderingJew will edit down my ramblings a bit.

3 (TheWanderingJew). My expertise is nowhere near as in depth as dlevy’s when it comes to all things Broadway. I might have thought some of the tunes sounded familiar – they clearly borrowed from other musicals and standard music genres (doo-wop, blues, country, etc.), but what I tried to focus on were the kids’ abilities. The cast was clearly talented, though I felt the music didn’t fully allow them to shine. Malcolm and Eddie had amazing energy, and really played off each other (and their friend, Brett) well, stealing scenes as well-choreographed backup singers. Patrice was able to portray her awkwardness and strength in her solos… Maybe I should just have said that the play was well cast? 

4 (dlevy). Ok, so it is impossible for me not to speak of Falsettos when talking about 13. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Falsettos, it is William Finn and James Lapine’s 1992 Broadway musical born out of two previous off-Broadway musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. March told the story of Marvin, a gay Jewish man in the early 1980s who has left his wife to live with his lover (it was the early ’80s, that’s what we called them then) but wants to create one big tight-knit Jewish family with him, his lover, his wife, her lover (who is also Marvin’s psychiatrist), and their pre-pubsecent son, Jason. In Falsettoland, Jason becomes bar mitzvah while Marvin’s lover, Whizzer, dies of AIDS.

This show had a huge impact on me as a kid (and still does today). I saw it just after coming home from USY on Wheels, my first really intensive, really positive Jewish experience, but also not so long after my own bar mitzvah. I was still getting used to the idea that I liked boys without ever having actually said that out loud to anyone. On top of that, it was a totally new style of musical storytelling, totally through-sung but definitely not a rock-opera. Finn’s lyrics were witty, mile-a-minute, and full of yiddishisms and sounded, more or less, like the conversation at a seder at my house. His melodies were at times beautiful and at times spastic and repetitious, also more or less like the conversation at a seder at my house. I think seeing this show, more than anything else in my youth, crystallized my belief that my Jewish identity and my gay identity are closely intertwined, leading me to the work I do today with Keshet.

What’s most interesting about my memories of seeing Falsettos for the first time is that I don’t remember feeling any particular awkwardness about seeing a very gay play with my parents while I was still deep in the closet. However, all the bar mitzvah stuff really poked at me in uncomfortable ways. I wasn’t sure how much I liked that the world was seeing things like Jason practicing his haftorah to a tape on his walkman, or that the arguments around catering decisions for his parents and invitation lists for him seemed to define the event as much as “becoming a man” did. And more than anything did I hate having to watch adults sing to their son about the onset of puberty. Puberty is awkward enough when it’s shameful and private… who wants to discuss it with adults, or worse, sit next to your parents while watching a show in which other parents sing lines about their son’s “body going wild” with pride? Oy.

I think my point here is that there’s something very powerful, at least for me, in seeing my identities played out on stage, particularly in the everything-is-magnified style of the Broadway musical.

5 (TheWanderingJew). My formative Jewish/queer culture moments didn’t happen on Broadway. Ok, sure, many of them were the beta video versions of musicals, but not all of them. Mostly, I had my awkward pre-teen moments in the pages of books, sitting in back corners of libraries, nose to the page. I had the privacy of reading to figure things out. So while I felt some affinity to the “becoming a man” struggles and questions that unfolded on the stage last night, I think I was better able to take a step back and enjoy them without feeling squeamish. I didn’t have the bumbling moments of exploration in the company of parents or adults, and didn’t have the memory of that discomfort to project onto the characters on stage. Had I realised Dlevy’s reaction in advance, maybe I would have snuck in a flask…

6 (dlevy). 13 solves a lot of that discomfort by eliminating adults from the stage entirely. The entire cast of the show are real, live teenagers, as is the band. I imagine that helps a little bit, but hey, I’m 30 now and a Jewish educator who works with middle-school-aged kids, so there’s a whole new range of things for me to be uncomfortable with. There were still a couple of lines that I suspect my 13-year-old self might have been uncomfortable with (eg, “I’m growing hair in places I didn’t even know where places!”) but that was fairly minor. Really, I was most uncomfortable with how two-dimensional many of the characters were. The “jock” and the “slut” are dumb and evil, respectively. The “good girl” is sweet but moronic. And so on. I understand that this show has been primarily marketed to kids, but kids are capable of understanding more complex characterizations and relationships.

7 (TheWanderingJew). Agreed completely. I wanted to see more depth in the characters, more development of the 13 (pre-)teens in general, and of the 5-6 “main” characters specifically. The tag line on the promotional material said 13′s a musical about “the labels that last a lifetime.” But do they? And are kids really labeled as simplistically as was attempted in the show? Youth are far more complex, and are capable of understanding more complex characters, than 13 portrayed. And I certainly hope they realise that they can grow up and outgrow their labels. (Says the queer Jew/Jewish queer who has blogged as “feygele” for almost seven years. Ha.)

8 (dlevy). I’ll admit that my impressions of the characters are colored by having read 13, the novel, by Brown and Dan Elish (who also has co-bookwriting credit for the musical). The novel isn’t exactly source material for the show. Brown and Elish conceived of both simutaneously, but the book was completed first. When I read the book, I liked it but thought it was incredibly simplistic (not to mention somewhat inept in its handling of Jewish culture). I was therefore really disappointed to see how much more simplistic the stage show became. I understand the time constraints involved in trying to fit an entire story-and-music into 90 minutes, but in the show, characters simply show up and announce themselves and their positions in the school’s pecking-order, totally violating the essential “show-don’t-tell” dictum of theater writing. This is particularly too bad because the book, shallow as it was, at least shows that the jock isn’t all bad, and gives the crippled-kid-next-door a devious, calculating (and hilarious) edge that was totally missing from the show.

9 (TheWanderingJew). The handling of Jewish culture was a huge sticking point for me – the bar mitzvah was only referred to as a party. Before the setting shifts to Indiana, when Evan’s inviting his Upper West Side friends to his bar mitzvah, they’re all making suggestions for how he can have a bigger and better party than his peers. It’s “Keeping Up With the Steins” meets “My Super Sweet 16.” I’m embarrassed for them, and I keep wondering when Evan will mention the Shabbat service he’s participating in, or even explain that he’s listening to his parsha on his iPod (we’re no longer watching a generation that practiced from tapes in walkmen). Because it is the Upper West Side and his classmates all know what a bar mitzvah is, all know many Jews; if this isn’t the place to explain it, there’s no hope for an explanation in rural Indiana.

The bar mitzvah scene involved Evan putting on a blazer, kippah, and tallis, and chanting two lines from, if I’m remembering his interesting pronunciation correctly, parsha Vayeira (Gen 22:17, I think? The bar mitzvah was said to be in October, so this is at least plausible).

10 (TheWanderingJew). But Judaism is there, at least superficially. The only reference to Jewish diversity comes out in a joke. I can’t tell if it’s a reference to Ethiopian Jews (would a general Broadway audience know that such a people exist?) or to the widespread materialism of the bar/bat mitzvah phenomenon: While some of the kids share that their relatives are coming in from Florida and Los Angeles and Israel for their own bar/bat mitzvahs, Malcolm, who’s African American, tells his friends that his family is coming in from Ethiopia. The audience laughs. The attempts to make the show Jewish were clumsy and fell flat. There were one-liners thrown in that I just couldn’t imagine a soon-to-be-13 year old saying. Like the fact that Jews complain, it’s what they do.

11 (dlevy). The result of simplified characters is a somewhat alarming resolution to the story. (SPOILER ALERT) In the end, Evan learns that rather than attempt to get to know the “cool kids” only to be disappointed, he should have trusted the advice of his first friend in town to stay away from them.

In other words, don’t form your own opinions about people, just follow what your friends say. (This theme is reiterated when the jock, Brett, begins to date the slut, Lucy, against the wishes of his best buddies.) (I just noticed that with this and Avenue Q, we now have two shows on Broadway with “Lucy the Slut” characters. Is this sublimated revenge at the Peanuts character?)

12 (TheWanderingJew). There were some other morals and lessons to the story, that could have been further developed. Like the fact that it’s ok to be different, an outsider, a dork. We saw that in both Evan’s struggles, as well as in Patrice and Archie’s stories. But we also learn that you can be a skanky bitch, spread rumours and lies, be rude to your friend, and still get the guy, retain friends and popularity, and not face repercussions. Oh, and we learned that if you want to hint that a character might be gay, you just need to have him comment on the nice shoes his friend is wearing.

But, really, the show could have had as much impact, or more, without the bar mitzvah focus. And that certainly would have increased the appeal, helped fill seats. (On a Thursday night, the theatre had large sections of empty seats.) And could have additionally helped spread the appeal to different age demographics. I’m not complaining, I was just disappointed.

13 (dlevy). I feel like I’m complaining too much (which, the musical tells me, is what Jewish people do), which isn’t fair because overall, I really did like the show. (And not in the way that I like almost every musical just because it’s a musical.) Jason Robert Brown is one of the best composer/lyricists of our generation, although (with the exception of his Leo Frank musical Parade), his characters have a tendency to sound like one another, sort of like a Woody Allen in song. There are particular turns of phrase in the show that were so on target they have stuck with me since the first time I heard the cast recording. In the title song, Evan wonders “when will I stop speaking in the frickin’ future tense,” and boy does that resonate with me. Although there might be some dubious messaging in the story (see above), the theme of taking ownership of one’s life right now, and not waiting for ritual markers or a nebulous someday, should resonate with everyone, kids and adults alike.

I think the show missed the boat by not marketing to adults, and to young adults in particular, because as much as the show aims to be authentic to kids today (and the kids all felt mostly authentic, many of them could be directly implanted into my own classroom), it also clearly has the unshakable resonance of a Gen-Xer looking back on his own childhood experience. (The eleven o’clock number even has Evan admitting, “One day I’ll be thirty/One day I’ll be fine/One day I’ll make fun of this dramatic life of mine./ One day I’ll be older/And then I’ll write a book/About the choices that I made.”) The show has already posted a closing notice for January, which is a real shame. So while I suspect no one is interested in reliving their b’nai mitzvah years, if you’re up for a look back that is both fun and a little poignant, check out 13. (And, because my mother would be disappointed if I didn’t include this, I should remind you that you can get discoutned tickets at the TKTS booth, or through TDF if you’re eligible, or using the discount codes. Hmm, maybe more Jewschool posts should include coupons….)

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