2007-01-04
Daily News
Evan Henerson

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The number 13. Unlucky, right? Taboo, even. Otherwise, we’d see it in hotel elevators, and nobody would freak out whenever the 13th day of the month fell on a Friday.
Well, the makers of the new musical “13,” set to open Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, have no such baker’s dozen-o-phobia. Here, then, are 13 things you should know about the musical “13.”

1. About the title: Think in terms of age and casting needs, not evil digits. “13” has 13 characters, each of whom is 13 years old, The actors portraying the kids are all between 13 and 17. Ditto, the members of the six-piece band: 12 to 17 years old, every one of them.

That makes for a lot of youthful energy, according to director Todd Graff. “A lot of them have that ragged, color-outside-the-lines, crazy energy,” says Graff. “It’s great, but it also has its downside. It’s harder to get them to shut up and focus.”

2. Tweeners welcome: Center Theatre Group’s Parent Guide lists “13” as being appropriate for audiences ages 6 and up, and composer Jason Robert Brown emphasizes that young teens should absolutely check it out. “I think it’s a show for 13-year-olds to own,” says Brown. “That was the intention — to create a show that kids could call theirs.

I really fought hard against any perception that it’s just a kids show, but at the same time I wanted 13-year-olds to look up there and recognize themselves.”

3. Making the cut: The “13”-ites were culled from auditions in Los Angeles and New York. Between a workshop last February at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and the Taper production, Brown estimates that the creative team saw upward of 1,000 kids.

4. Credit check: The cast members have Broadway and regional theater credits, and have toured, appeared in movies and TV, sung the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium and in many cases have their own Web sites and MySpace pages.

5. Not that ‘Thirteen’: Though it’s the same number, it’s not an adaptation of the 2003 film “Thirteen,” about a pair of 13-year-olds gone wild.

“I’m not a nihilist. My worldview is not dark,” says Brown. “I know the world is not a particularly kind place. I don’t want to manipulate my music into espousing a worldview I don’t consider particularly helpful.”

“It’s got some sad and darker stuff, too,” adds Sara Niemietz, 14, who plays the misfit Patrice, “but I think this is the more positive side of being 13.”

6. No cutting class: As is the case on film sets, the “13” cast members had to balance their schoolwork — up to three hours a day on site — and professional duties.

“It was kind of like high school but not cliquish,” says Niemietz. “Everybody gets along, and we’re all just there to be friends (and) focus on making a really good show.”

7. Duly noted: While the score of “13” is noticeably different from his earlier works, Brown had to take pains to ensure that the songs didn’t sound too much like each other or like they were birthed in another age.

“It was entirely unconscious,” Brown says, “but when I started writing, I realized I was writing stuff that all sounded like it was written in 1983 … when I was 13. I was having a great time writing sort of a new-wave pop musical, but as the show went on, it was all starting to sound like The Romantics.”

8. Plotting the right move: In “13,” a New Yorker named Evan (Ricky Ashley) moves to Appleton, Ind., just in time to negotiate the perils of his bar mitzvah. Cliques, clashes and questions of coolness abound. The show’s songs — yes, 13 in all — carry titles like “What It Means to be a Friend,” “Being a Geek,” “All the Cool Kids” and of course, “Thirteen!”

9. Not too old: The New Yorker Ashley participated in a reading of “13” two years ago, but when it came time to cast the full production, Brown figured Ashley would be “45 years old by now.”

“Ricky’s agent sent him in, and I went, ‘You know what? Not too old,’ ” says Brown, although Ashley is “the oldest member of the cast by two years.”

10. Taking five: This is the first new musical in nearly five years for Brown, the composer of “The Last Five Years,” “Songs for a New World” and “Parade.” He followed “The Last Five Years” with a stint as the musical director for Broadway’s “Urban Cowboy” and then took a seven month sabbatical in Italy. He relocated to L.A. to teach musical theater and performance at USC.

11. Honeymooning: Brown, who prior to “13” thought he was done with this musical theater business, is also working on an adaptation of “Honeymoon in Vegas” with the film’s writer/director Andrew Bergman, and an untitled project with monologuist Charlayne Woodard.

12. The real stuff: Novelist Dan Elish, whose “Born Too Short” helped entice Brown to get involved “13,” is the author of several books for young people.

Brown maintains that portions of all of the creators’ teen experiences crept into the narrative of “13,” but only up to a point.

“Dan’s parents split up when Dan was 13,” says Brown, “We didn’t want to let Evan’s parents’ divorce be the motor of the show. What I wanted this show to be about was the struggle to be who you really are as opposed to who you think you’re supposed to be.”

13. The kids are all right: Although he’s written the screenplays for such films as “The Beautician and the Beast,” “Angie,” and “Used People,” director Graff seems in touch with his inner adolescent. “13” is Graff’s stage-directing debut, which follows his 2003 film “Camp,” about a bunch of kids at a musical-theater summer camp. And one of his developing film projects is a movie musical with Paramount and Nickelodeon about kids in a Broadway show. “I didn’t mean for it to happen this way,” says Graff. “There’s a script I wrote two years ago that I’ve wanted to direct that I can’t get the money for. There’s not a kid in it.”

13
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Feb. 18.
Tickets: $20 to $65. (213) 628-2772.
Center Theatre Group website.

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651 evan.henerson@dailynews.com


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