This is the setup of the new musical 13 as described by composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, whose previous credits include Parade (for which he won a Tony Award), The Last Five Years, and Songs for a New World. The show is set for a December 22-February 18 run at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. It has a book by noted children's literature author Dan Elish and is directed by Todd Graff, who helmed the film Camp. And get this: The cast and the band consist entirely of young teenagers.
"The kids are the whole show," says Brown. "There are no adults to take it over from them, like Dorothy Loudon in Annie. They have to do it all, and it's so exciting to watch them own the stage." Was it hard for Brown to put himself in the mindset of a kid while writing the score? "There were times when it was alarmingly easy to find that place, to remember what it was like to be that young and vulnerable. Other times, it was more difficult; my ideas were right, but I was expressing them like a 36-year-old. So I had to tear all of that away and find out how a kid would say the same things."
The growing pains depicted in the show should be familiar not only to adolescent Jewish boys but to kids of all creeds, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. Says Brown: "When Evan's rabbi asks him what's so terrible about not being popular, Evan sings a song called 'Being a Geek.' The show is about trying to find how and where you fit in, learning to be comfortable with who you are as opposed to who you think you're supposed to be. I think that's universal."
The playwright has worked closely with the Chicago creative team, headed by director Jessica Thebus. Although the play has had several previous productions -- at Boston's Huntington Theatre in 2004, New York's Summer Play Festival this past summer, and the Laguna Playhouse in Southern California earlier this year -- Lopez says she was still making minor changes as late as the eighth preview of the Steppenwolf run.
A central aspect of the work is the title character's participation in Operation Pedro Pan, in which over 14,000 children were brought from Cuba to the United States to escape from Fidel Castro's communist regime between the years 1960 and 1962. Most were later reunited with their parents, while others -- like the play's Sonia -- remained under foster care. Lopez, who is Cuban-American, found out she had a cousin that was a Pedro Pan and became very interested in how such an experience marked those who were a part of it. Friends of hers hooked her up with other Pedro Pans whom she interviewed. "I got great anecdotes," she states. "But I was too afraid to ask the painful questions, because I didn't want to cause them pain and also, in a way, I knew that I needed to imagine it for myself."
In contrast to the first act's 2001 setting, the second half of the play takes place in 1961 Cuba, on the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to Lopez, it shows "how there is fear of the government, and the intrusion of power into the lives of citizens -- fear of what your children are learning and becoming, and a feeling that events are beyond your control. I'm really compelled by this question of how do we protect our democracy. I feel like it happened in Cuba, and I know those people -- that was my family, and they are not that different from you and me."
The revue is the latest of the company's annual holiday-time entertainments that take a look at the history of comedy. "This year we're doing political humor," says 1812 artistic director Jennifer Childs, "but in the past we've done vaudeville, 1950s nightclub comedy, and so on. We find that the shows fit very well with the season; they're nostalgic for a lot of people because we do a lot of vintage material along with the new material."
According to Childs, not much setup is required for the classic routines. "We've included a Calvin Coolidge joke by Will Rogers, and it gets a good chuckle every night because it's a good one; just put someone else's name in and it's completely relevant to today." As for the new stuff, "It changes from week to week, based on what's going on. Bush, Cheney, and Condi Rice are always in the show; other people make appearances as the news demands."
Tackling political humor has been a learning experience for Childs and company. "We were very fortunate to meet with and interview Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, two lions in the field. We had coffee with them at 11 o'clock at night at a Starbucks in Englewood, New Jersey, after a performance of theirs. They were so inspirational. Mort said, 'You watch comedians now and they're doing 'Bush is stupid' jokes. You have to challenge yourself and go beyond the obvious.' "