Jacob Hellman on Indiana and Jerusalem

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The musical 13 (music and lyrics by Jason Roberts Brown) returns to the Israeli stage as part of the Stage One English Theater Festival at Beit Avi Chai, and will be performed on Wednesday, March 31 at 18:00 and 19:30. Directed by Liel Zahavi-Asa with dramaturg Jacob Hellman and a young, talented cast, the play has generated a great deal of excitement. Hellman, an American who spent several months in Israel working on the show, shares his thoughts on the process and the musical:

Dramaturg’s Notes:

            Geographically and culturally, you can’t get much farther from Indiana than Israel. In the Holy Land, a place many times smaller than Indiana, not a day goes by when we aren’t ware of religious tensions, tradition versus modernity, and cultural diversity – yesterday, for example, I noted signs in ten different languages on the short bus ride from the Central Bus Station to the theater. The one time I was in Indiana, the most exciting thing that happened was hitting the brakes as a stray cow crossed the road. And no, it was not a skinny cow. Even the basic scenery is different – where in the crossroads of America green is seen, stones and sand line Israel’s highways.

Even so, when I came here from the USA and met Liel Zahavi-Asa and these twelve incredible Israeli teens, I was amazed to find how much they share with the students of Dan Quayle Junior High. Ten or fifteen years ago, it would have been unthinkable to instantly receive news on the latest technology trends from the other side of the globe. Today, teenagers socialize via texting and “Facebook-ing,” and in minutes, any of them can download the latest Beyoncé song from America or watch an episode of an Israeli reality TV show on YouTube. This is not unlike the activities of choice of their characters, a motley bunch from Appleton, Indiana, a town termed by some (cough, Patrice, cough, cough) as “the lamest place in the world.”

Miri Fraenkel, one of our two resident British-born actors, noted on several occasions how fun and different it was to play an American. No offense to Miri (and in that purple costume, I’d definitely steer clear of offending her), but what I’ve found here in Israel is that not only in their material goods are the actors like their characters, but in the choices that they make and situations they have to deal with. At times, all of them feel like Jerusalem – or Beit Shemesh or Efrat, for that matter – are the “lamest places in the world.” So as far as “playing American,” the kids are more or less playing – their Israeli selves.

Throughout the last few months, the cast of 13 has faced new challenges on stage, refining their acting and characterization, honing their physical and vocal abilities, and for some of them, working with a director, choreographer, dramaturg, and accompaniment for the first time. On top of that, the kids face challenges daily in their own lives as teenagers struggling to make sense of their world. It is a world full of contradictions, in their microcosm of the globe that seems unique and exotic some days, and on some days just the same as anywhere else in the world – the “lamest place,” where the drone of daily life can overpower the moments of truth and clarity, just like in Appleton. Not unlike their Indiana counterparts, these twelve talented Israeli teens meander between meltdowns and maturations, mess-it-ups and make-it-right-agains, and turn milestones into memories.

To quote the opening lines of the show, it is with “pride and confidence” that we present to you the workshop premiere of 13 in Israel.

13: The Rhythm is Gonna Get Ya

13 is a musical journey through the lives and minds of a group of colorful thirteen-year-olds in small-town Indiana. Although the plot and references in Elish and Horn’s script scream Millennial, the music and lyrics provided by Jason Robert Brown are what truly cement 13’s place in the 21st century repertoire of musical theater, with roots that delve into the history of American popular music. Long before 50 Cent, Miley Cyrus, and the Pussycat Dolls represented America on the global music scene with gangsta rap, bubblegum-pop, and artificially modulated, computer-generated synthesizers, the Land of the Free reverberated with diverse vocal styles showcasing musical legends with clarion voices used for what they were made to do – as instruments of the human body with depth and timbre, used to communicate and tell stories.

Jason Robert Brown’s goal with 13 was to make the show cater to tweens and teens, but stand out as something their moms and dads would enjoy as well. His previous musicals The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World introduced the world to Brown’s imaginative lyrics, but in 13, Brown clearly did a little more homework. “A Little More Homework” lends us a combination of choral harmony and inspirational words that echo traditional gospel and folk tunes, modernized by groups such as Sweet Honey in the Rock and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

The creative lyrics and doo-wop rhythm that Brown spins into “Bad Bad News” make the trio of Malcolm, Simon, and Eddie into a modern-day version of the Flamingos. On the ladies’ side, “Opportunity” turns cheerleading – yes, you read me right, cheerleading – into girl-punk worthy of Ann and Nancy Wilson, packing a punch with Lucy’s sultry, punchy solos sizzling in the ears like Pat Benatar’s legendary battlefield of love. Patrice’s careful phrasing in “What It Means to Be a Friend” tips a hat to great American torch singers past and present, from Rosemary Clooney to Norah Jones. If you listen closely enough, you can even imagine the great musical artists themselves singing – depending on your generation, Evan and Patrice’s gentle harmonizing in “Tell Her” brings back Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow duetting on “Picture,” Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love”, or perhaps Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and A Gentleman. And I dare you to not think about the Jackson Five when listening to “Brand New You.”

It just goes to show you that no, 13 is not a glorified High School Musical with a side of pickled herring; it’s a celebration that hits the high notes of Americana, culminating in a coda that resounds from middle America to right here in the Middle East. Both are places where 13-year-olds will continue to listen to the beat of their own music and create the soundtracks for their own lives.

JACOB HELLMAN

See the show at Beit Avi Chai, and in the meantime, share the excitement with the cast of 13: