Jason Robert Brown's new Broadway musical, 13 — about teenagers trying to navigate the middle school minefields of popularity, crushes and cliques — explores the exhilarating, confusing, mystifying nature of adolescence. Although the 38-year-old composer and lyricist slogged through his own angst-ridden years more than two decades ago, he insists that they're never that far away, always bubbling just under the surface.
"I can call up that feeling of isolation, that feeling of rage, or even that feeling of youthful ignorance and naivete fairly easily because I sort of walk around with it all the time," says Brown with a laugh during a recent rehearsal break. "I'm inclined to think no one on earth is actually all that removed from what they were feeling when they were a teenager. It's such an intense crucible to go through, I don't think anyone emerges from it with a clean slate."
When Brown began working on 13 with book writers Dan Elish (and later co-librettist Robert Horn), his initial impulse was to write a comedy, something commercial, accessible and fun. One of the most promising and acclaimed composers of his generation, Brown was looking for a break from weighty adult subjects. After all, his two previous shows concerned the disintegration of a marriage (The Last Five Years) and the prejudices that led to the lynching of a Jewish man in the South in the early 1900s (Parade). Heady stuff, indeed.
As work on 13 progressed, Brown found himself connecting with the material on a deeply personal level. "There are lessons that these characters begin to understand at the end of this show that I didn't figure out until I was 32 or 33 years old," he admits. At the center of the show is 12-going-on-13-year-old Evan, a Jewish kid from New York who moves to a small Indiana town after his parents decide to divorce. Smart, quick-witted and outgoing, but an outsider nonetheless, Evan yearns for acceptance in this unfamiliar new world as he tries to make friends to invite to his upcoming bar mitzvah. He wants to run with the cool crowd, but in seeking to gain their approval, he risks alienating his new pals — middle school outcasts like the brainy Patrice and the lovesick Archie, who's afflicted with muscular dystrophy but longs to be seen as just an average kid.
"I think what the show asks of its characters and what the show asks of the audience is: To be special or unique or a little off-center, is that a negative thing, or is that something you have to embrace?"
That's a question that Brown struggled to reconcile for many years. In fact, he acknowledges that inner conflict helped spur his reputation as an Angry Young Man. "I think anyone who knew me in my twenties would say that I'm a very different creature now," he says. "And I think anyone who knew me when I was a teenager would be surprised to find out that I don't have the maddening ambition or the hysterical impatience or the random rage that I carried around with me for a long time."
Indeed, the story arc in 13 was informed by Brown's own emotional journey to self-acceptance. "It took me a long time to realize that being unique and being special and not swimming in the middle of the mainstream turns out to be an advantage and turns out to be the thing that I do best. Once I figured that out, my life suddenly settled," he says. "I realized that's who I am. I am this person who writes these things and feels these things and expresses these things. So I might as well just own it and love it and embrace it. And in owning, loving and embracing it, I found a life that I was comfortable with for the first time — and not angry about and not sad about and not feeling like a failure. Coming to terms with that has only made my life better."