Posted on September 24, 2008 at 9:12 pm

Making the Band, the Broadway Edition

New York Times, September 24, 2008

JASON ROBERT BROWN, the Tony Award-winning composer of the musical “Parade,” has been spending a lot of time with a bunch of teenagers. Day after day, at Carroll Studios, at the far end of West 55th Street near 12th Avenue in Manhattan, he has drilled them on the same piece of pop-rock music, pacing back and force with calm confidence, pointing out errors and occasionally plunking out a few piano notes of instruction, while his mop-headed charges hunch over their guitars and other instruments, receiving his wisdom through a seemingly bored air of I-don’t-care cool.

Mr. Brown is not supplementing his income with private tutoring. Neither is he performing some sort of community service. The youths in purposefully worn T-shirts, ripped jeans and shaggy hairstyles constitute the orchestra of his new musical, “13,” due to open next Sunday at Broadway’s Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. Much has been written about how the show — which tracks the woes of a teenager whose life is turned upside down when his family moves from cosmopolitan Manhattan to rural Indiana — is performed by a cast too young for voter-registration cards. Less has been said about the fact that the band accompanying them is in the same age group.

Mr. Brown’s vision for the unorthodox musical always called for the score — 18 songs running more than two hours — to be played by teenagers. “It is the heart of the show as far as I’m concerned,” he said during a break in a recent band rehearsal. “My reasoning is always ‘If you see it, you get it.’ I knew what the show would sound like if it were played by a bunch of union guys in their 40s who all had to race to get home on the train. There was a very specific energy to the show that I was looking for, and it was something about what happened when you let those kids on the stage.”

The orchestra performs onstage in full view of the audience. As a result the players have had to join both the musicians’ and actors’ unions.

Mr. Brown has remained adamant that the age of the band members never breach 18. Thus some musicians who participated in a previous production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in late 2006 and early 2007 no longer possessed the requisite youth. There are, however, two West Coast holdovers: the guitarist Chris Raymond, who is 17 and has played in every “13” orchestra to date; and Charlie Rosen. At 18, Mr. Rosen cannot be a full-fledged member of the pit, so this multi-instrumentalist was drafted by Mr. Brown to understudy each of the Broadway players. Mr. Rosen deferred his studies at the Berklee College of Music in Boston to take the Broadway job.

“It’s not necessarily difficult,” Mr. Rosen said of the musical’s score, “but it’s challenging. It’s very intelligent music as far as the chord makeup. It takes a high level of understanding to understand harmonically what’s going on.”

Mr. Brown, once a teenage musician himself, can still come off as something of a full-grown band geek, so it’s no surprise that the young musicians cotton to him — even if half the ensemble admitted to never having heard of him prior to auditioning for “13.”

“He’s really like a friend to all of us, the entire band,” said Lexi Bodick, 15, a bass player from New Canaan, Conn., and the only female member of the group. “He’s always making jokes. He makes us feel comfortable playing with each other and playing with him. I expected there would be a lot of work, but I didn’t expect how easy it would be to get along with the cast, and how much fun everything is.”

Ms. Bodick started taking music lessons four years ago in hopes of forming a “family band” with her guitar-playing older brother. Other members of the ensemble had a far earlier start. Adam Michael Kaufman, 17, the keyboardist, started playing piano when he was 3, as did Mr. Rosen. By the time they responded to the “13” casting notice, most members already had been in bands of their own.

On both coasts the auditions were all-day cattle calls. “It was pretty intense,” recalled Zac Coe, 16, a percussionist from Fairfield, Conn. “They herded us all into this room and sat us in groups. They had all the equipment set up for one band, with an extra keyboard for Jason. They would rotate us in and out, playing together, which I think is more effective than us playing one by one.”

Several players said the score challenged them, but not one has confessed to of being inadequate to the task. “He’s got a clear vision. It’s good to work with someone who knows exactly what he wants,” said Zach Page, a 15-year-old guitarist with a stadium-rock-ready name.

“They don’t want to be told that anything’s too difficult,” Mr. Brown said.

Other work habits, however, needed to be taught. “They don’t write anything down,” Mr. Brown said. “To get them to pick a pencil and make a notation — they just think, ‘Oh, yeah, I got that.’ If you look at the books these guys had written after three weeks, it was impenetrable. It was like it was in code.”