Posted on October 8, 2008 at 9:13 pm

The Jewish Exponent, 10/8/08
Lucky ’13’
Teens teem on stage with a Bar Mitzvah in the balance

Michael Elkin, Arts & Entertainment Editor
The Jewish Exponent, October 8, 2008

Becoming “13”: Today you are a … musical?

Bimah him up: Evan Goldman is having a meltdown that would drown a dripping ice-swan sculpture and curdle the cream cheese — and just about make chopped liver out of his chipper life.

The Bar Mitzvah boy to be is about to celebrate turning 13 — which turns out to be the unluckiest number of all: His newly minted Manhattan manhood has become madness — Evan’s parents, he finds out abruptly, are divorcing, and Mom’s packing the tallit bag and kipah for safekeeping, and heading with her son to the “un-in” state of Indiana.

Making ali-yell? Eviscerated Evan doesn’t have the jones for Indiana, which is made up of, he reasons, a bunch of Indiots. Hoosiers? Make his the Knicks, as he leaves Madison Square Garden for a Midwest square patch of brown lawn turf.

At least in New York, they know what a Bar Mitzvah is; here, he sees, they look at him quizzically and point to the tavern down by the Dairy Queen.

Thirteen … check, please! Bad news for someone who was looking forward to his Bar Mitzvah being half Torah, half party. But then, how else to become a man without learning how to deal with life manhandling you?

“13,” now teeming on stage with a topical timeliness at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, is a Broadway mitzvah, a pocketful of miracles stuffed with checkpoints: Just how did its book writers Dan Elish and Robert Horn horn their way into my memories, reliving, rekindling what it means to be a teen with the teeniest perspective on becoming a boy/man?

“Ha!” responds Elish who, with Horn, has bookended a delightful score by Jason Robert Brown that pinches the chic of what it means to try and be cool when you’re frozen out by the hot crowd.

Yet, while all 13 actors are in the 13-year age range — the same for the rock band back of the stage — this very grown-up musical is no child’s play: Issues of alienation in a nation that stresses conformity — fitting in while throwing a fit to be accepted is the same whether in New York or in Indiana — make “13” count for so much on Broadway these days.

Grab a teen’s hand and let him lead you into those rudderless days of delivering his/her portion of the weak, when all of the future is seemingly at stake.

In serving up the steaks and potato latkes, and asking audiences to “essen” … in essence, Brown, Elish and Horn — and a teeming teen cast — have popped the zit on the zeitgeist and gotten it all right.

All right, says Elish, who also penned the book of “13,” he can explain. “I have actually hidden out inside the chopped liver [molds] at Bar Mitzvahs. I certainly have been to enough of them.” Ironically, however, not his own. “I went to Hebrew school, but did not have a Bar Mitzvah.”

What he does have is a tam for the Torah scroller that points to what it means to be a half-boy/half-man/wholly confused naif at such an age. And this is not the first time the acclaimed author of a variety of children’s books has bellied up to the Bar Mitzvah and asked for a serving of simcha. His children’s show, “Miracle in Miami” — shown off-Broadway some years back — posits Santa Claus going to bat for a young girl in the midst of Bat Mitzvah preparations. Then there was the parody he penned …

“Well,” he concedes, “it does seem to have figured into my writing, hasn’t it?”

But the write stuff is also of catholic taste, including Born Too Short, Confessions of an 8th Grade Basket Case and The Great Squirrel Uprising (not to be confused with The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks, which he also wrote, or “Groundhog Day,” which he did not).
How he was invited to Evan’s Bar Mitzvah imbroglio is another matter. “I’ve always been a big fan of Jason’s,” who knew Elish had written about teens. And the accomplished composer had this idea of “13,” it seems. “It was his premise, that of a Bar Mitzvah boy being an outsider. It resonated with Jason, with me … with everybody.”

And how it hit home: “My parents got divorced when I turned 13,” the same as Evan’s.

That may have been hellish for Elish but, when approaching “13,” he reasoned that the number of “Bar Mitzvah boys who are normal is about 90 percent.”

Per sense memory of that age, “it is where my heart is; I relate to that age group.”

Grouping his interests is eclectic in nature; his background includes writing for adults as well as performing music, and the muse of photography. Well, there was the time he was paid to “take photos of garbage on New York streets.”

The beginning of smell-o-vision? No, he avers. “Just a wacky summer job.”

As summer ends, Elish is breezing onto Broadway with a show that appeals to all ages — even including 5 and 2? “They’re both big fans of the show,” he says of his offstage kids, “and my son, the 2-year-old, hears the music and goes, ‘I want ’13!’ “

And maybe now so will thousands of Broadway theatergoers. Is 13 Elish’s lucky number? “I hope so. We’ll find out.”

On the trail to discovery alongside him is Horn, trumpeting a bio with the brashest star this side of a million-dollar Bar Mitzvah: Among his many writing credits is “Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance.”

Was Dame Edna — who, in an interview with me some years back, conceded she is a “Jewess,” coming from “Hebrew ancestry” — invited to the Bar Mitzvah at the Jacobs? No, he concedes, but then “13” had its share of gladiolus for decoration.

Horn has his own memories of what it means to have a Bar Mitzvah barren of the usual trappings: Turn back the hands of time to a handsome boy who was, in his own description, “a 13-year-old neurotic Jew,” during “such a time of influx and change.”

He wouldn’t change anything now, but memories of celebrating his big birthday are borne with some disappointments. “I had moved out of my home; I became a ward of the state and had my Bar Mitzvah in an orphanage” run by the Jewish Child Care Association, he recalls.

“My mother was trying to raise two kids by herself after my father left us. And, like Evan Goldman, who had to leave New York, I had to leave my family in the ’70s and wonder, ‘How do I fit in?’ “

If it don’t fit, you must acquit, and he acquitted himself with sorrow: “I ended up running away, and when I was 14, maybe 15, I lived on the streets of New York. Which is when I found my own identity.”

He identifies with the problems Evan faces: “There is so much pressure on a kid at 13; people expect you to be an adult, but don’t give you the responsibilities of an adult.”

His responsibilities with the book of the show came, he says, after the musical first tried out in California and then moved on to the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, where he helped connect some of the dots of the previously written book.

Turning a new leaf in life, from runaway to runaway success as TV writer and producer on such shows as “Designing Women” and “Living Single,” singled him out for what he seems destined to do now.

Now in a development deal with Sony and having “Wild Life” for Disney among his credits, Horn can look back at a rather wild life — the start of it, anyway — and see the big picture. “When I was in the orphanage, I pretended that everything was a movie, and I put myself into the third-person” perspective.

He got a firsthand look for himself when, “in the late ’70s, I had an apartment on Thompson Street in the Village and used to watch all the kids going back and forth to NYU.”

He soon joined them. “I wrote my own monologues, auditioned and got a full scholarship.”

The ship hasn’t sailed on his past; he carries it with him and lets its memories land him in the real world when the reel world could as easily have carried him away.

No longer separated from his mother — who had come to see his Bar Mitzvah at the orphanage — he was eager to share the largess that largely came his way from TV writing. “I bought my mother a condo in Los Angeles,” and he and his twin sister — from whom he was separated for a number of years — join their mother now in a triumphant trio.

And, today, with “13” facing what may be the infinite success of a run on Broadway, Horn looks at the cast — notably the young Indiana foil, Archie — with arch appreciation. “Archie hangs out with outcasts,” says the literary outlaw.

“Me, too.”