Jewish Journal
Naomi Pfefferman

In Jason Robert Brown’s new rock musical, “13,” the 13-year-old characters stand in a semicircle, staring bewilderedly at scraps of parchment.

The teenagers in this show, which has its world premiere Jan. 7 at the Mark Taper Forum downtown, are non-Jewish students at a middle school in the fictional Appleton, Ind., and the “mysterious” documents are invitations to a bar mitzvah, courtesy of the Jewish new-kid-in-town, Evan Goldman. Evan moved to Appleton over the summer, following his parents’ divorce: “Everyone already thinks I’m some weirdo fatherless New York Jewish freak,” he laments near the beginning of the show. “One wrong move, and I’m exiled to the Loser Table for the rest of the year.”

Evan has a plan to ward off Loserdom: He’ll get all the cool kids to come to his bar mitzvah — even if that means he can’t invite his only real friend, Patrice, who is considered a weirdo. He’s not concerned that his actions contradict his Haftorah, which discusses what it is to be a leader and to do the right thing. Being dubbed a geek is “a waste, it’s a drag, it’s ‘suck’ in a bag,” Evan explains in one song, accompanied by backup “geeks” wearing frumpy pants and nerdy glasses. He doesn’t want to celebrate the most important day of his young life with just his mom, her friend and a rabbi they found online.

So will Evan follow the rules of “coolhood” and abandon Patrice? Or will he learn what it means to become a bar mitzvah — or, at least, to act like a mensch?

This funny-poignant piece is the brainchild of 36-year-old composer-lyricist Brown — who is often described as a successor to Stephen Sondheim — and among the smartest and most sophisticated talents in today’s musical theater.

“It’s my memory of being 13,” the droll and sometimes prickly Brown said in a recent interview. “It was just a constant batting on the walls, trying to get to this thing called the ‘inside.’ And wanting to be independent, but nobody letting you — at least nobody letting you enough — because you haven’t had the experience of being wrong enough to know what the right thing to do is. The show is about the drive to fit in, the meaning of friendship, and what it means to grow up.”

So why is Evan Jewish? “That makes him even more of an outsider in Indiana,” says Dan Elish, who wrote the book for “13.”

“Evan is preparing for his bar mitzvah, the major rite of passage symbolizing becoming a man, but he has to learn what that is,” Elish adds. “At the beginning of the show, he’s kind of clueless. He’s a good- hearted kid, but he’s acting badly.”

During a recent rehearsal at the Center Theatre Group Annex, the 13 actors, ages 12 to 17, act like, well, teenagers as they race down corridors, giggling, to one of three rehearsal rooms, oblivious to the tall, angular Brown, who wears a brooding expression standing out in the hall. The composer’s mind is on perfecting the show’s 13 scenes and songs, and he’s on a deadline, so he has no time for niceties as he abruptly strides off to hole up in an office with Elish. The composer is affable, if sardonic, in a subsequent telephone interview, when he explains that he wrote “13,” in part, because he is dissatisfied with the state of musical theater today.

“‘The Producers’ just isn’t interesting music,” he says by way of example. Nor is he enthused by the youth-oriented musicals “Rent” or “Hairspray.” Brown says it was his disdain for the current, teen-focused fare on Broadway, in particular, that spurred him to envision his own such project eight years ago.

“At the time, ‘Footloose’ and ‘Saturday Night Fever’ were all that was playing on Broadway, and everything just seemed so insanely superficial, which it remains to this day,” Brown says. “So I thought, ‘I can get on that bus.’ I can write about dancing teenagers, because that’s all anyone seems to care about anymore.”

If Brown sounds jaded, it’s because he’s experienced the vagaries of Broadway. At 23, he was hired to write the score for Alfred Uhry’s “Parade,” about the anti-Semitic lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915. The score won him a 1999 Tony Award, but the show closed after just 84 performances “because no one wanted to see the ‘lynching musical,'” Brown says.

He was left broke and without prospects; his answering machine quipped that one could find him flipping burgers at White Castle.

Actually, he was seriously pursuing the rights to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” a pop culture phenomenon he deemed smart, fun — and rife with possibilities for dancing teenagers. When no one returned his calls, he wrote a semiautobiographical song cycle, “The Last Five Years,” a divorce saga Time dubbed among the best shows of 2001. And he began to imagine his own “dancing teenager” musical, which, he decided, should revolve around the age when kids leap from childhood to a scary but exciting new era: their teens. Brown thought back to his own 13th year in Monsey, N.Y., when he was a head shorter than most of his classmates, the result of having skipped the third grade.

“There is such a thing as being comfortable with who you are, what you want to do and who you surround yourself with, and I was completely incapable of being comfortable with who I was or what situation I was in,” he recalls. “I wasn’t happy with my body; I didn’t know how to dress; I thought I was weird, and I wasn’t alone in seeing myself that way.”

When his mother told him he could invite 10 friends to his Conservative bar mitzvah, “I didn’t have 10 friends to invite,” he says.

Brown consoled himself by playing the piano and imagining himself as a rock star, but he had different plans for his protagonist in “13.”

“I wanted to create a Jewish kid from the Upper West Side — a character who was familiar to me — and take him out of his comfort zone, to a place where he had to prove himself,” Brown says. “And then I thought about what made 13 such a powerfully resonant age for me, and of course the bar mitzvah is the most obvious thing that comes to mind.”

The Jewish rite of passage becomes a metaphor for the show’s coming-of-age themes — as does Evan’s Haftorah, Isaiah 42:7. In the text, God calls on Jews to “open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon and those who sit in darkness out of prison.” (The “prisoners” are victims of political social injustice, according to some interpretations.)

The divine instructions “speak not just to just Evan’s job in the show, but also to the Jewish male’s job, according to the Torah: to be a leader, to step forward, to take responsibility, to take action,” Brown says.

Of course, the non-Jewish students ask naïve (and hilarious) questions about Evan’s background: They wonder if “bar mitzvah” is a synonym for “Bon Jovi;” whether Jerry Seinfeld will attend; and whether they will have to speak backwards and lift Evan up in a chair. Evan has to explain that the Hebrew is read backwards, and the chair is for weddings.

When he assumes his rabbi can’t possibly understand what it is to be an outsider, the rabbi responds, “Oh, I know something about it. I’m a rabbi in Indiana.”

To write and direct the show, Brown selected artists who have previously turned their own memories of teen angst into fiction. Elish, 46, wrote a 2002 young-adult novel, “Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case,” which describes a Jewish 13-year-old’s jealousies and libidinous fantasies.

Director Todd Graff, 47, based his semiautobiographical film, “Camp,” (2003) on the year he stole a car, and his alarmed Jewish parents shipped him off to theater camp. The teenage Todd ended up loving the experience, even though the most inspiring teacher was also a “nut job” who threw folding chairs at students when they messed up during rehearsals.

Graff is far more benevolent with his actors during a “13” rehearsal, smiling and nodding as they gamely practice a new number involving fancy footwork and tongue-twisting lyrics.

In between scene work, the boys flip cell-phone props at each other, and Ricky Ashley, who plays Evan flirts with one of the female performers while scribbling a note on the back of her script, which is decorated with floral stickers (she makes a face and feigns anger).

Sometimes even Brown has to crack a smile at his performers’ youthful antics. He insists he is “a considerably different person than the guy who wrote ‘The Last Five Years.” During his own last five years, Brown has remarried, had a daughter, released a solo album, begun teaching at USC, conducted orchestras all over the world and performed with his acclaimed rock band, The Caucasian Rhythm Kings. Although he continues to be prickly at times, he feels his own life’s events have pushed him to a new level of maturity, not unlike what Evan experiences in the show.

So, OK, it’s taken a while for the 36-year-old to write a musical that’s unabashedly optimistic.

“13,” he admits, “has been gestating for a long time. Probably about 23 years.”

“13” opens Jan. 7 and continues through Feb. 18 at the Mark Taper Forum. Tickets: 213-638-2772 or visit www.CentertheatreGroup.org.