Unseasonable Spring; Sweet Thirteen

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

True Romanticists didn't used to talk about sex, but they sure loved to talk about springtime. In the poetry and plays of the German Romantic era, spring was a potent symbol of birth, children blossoming into adulthood, and of course, first love. For the Germanic states during the late 19th century, springtime came after a long hard winter; in the United States today, spring seems to come much earlier. Like in January.

While in New York last week seeing Spring Awakening, a new show about growing pains and budding sexuality, the east coast was experiencing 70o temperatures and trees blossoming months too early. And just as nature's patterns seem to have changed since the romantic era, so too has society.

This was on my mind as I sat through Spring Awakening and another musical receiving its world premiere here in Los Angeles titled 13. Spring Awakening is a Rent-style update of the play by German author Franz Wedekind. Wedekind's 1891 play caused scandals for years after its publication because it frankly portrayed the awkward mix of sex and adolescence.

A musical of Spring Awakening is not a bad idea, but in this Broadway version, Wedekind's scenario is not set to music, but rather interrupted by 20 incongruent songs by Duncan Sheik. As listeners of Morning Becomes Eclectic know, Sheik is a talented songwriter--but his sound is decidedly modern. Unfortunately, Spring Awakening's abrasive, in-your-face lyrics (written by Steven Sater) jibe neither with Sheik's laid-back, indie-rock style or Wedekind's formal, old-world storytelling.

The result is a cacophony of tones--both musical and thematic. Spring Awakening is being presented at a time where youth--at least in America--enjoy unprecedented freedom (and arguably power--the fact that this show exists is testimony to Broadway and the entire entertainment industry's obsession with youth) and yet the show presents the struggle of adolescence as if nothing has changed in a hundred years. Wedekind's original play tells us that the sharp emotions of youth have stayed the same; but history shows that society has indeed changed--in ways that would likely cause even the most liberated German romantic to blush. If only the music or stagecraft in Spring Awakening addressed the reality of repression today, instead of merely exploiting it.

Jason Robert Brown's new musical 13 paints a much tamer picture of youth than either version of Spring Awakening. Unlike Wedekind, there's no suicide or masturbation; and unlike the musical, there are no songs with expletives or graphic, on-stage sex. No, the raciest 13 ever gets is kids singing about the imagined thrills of getting to first base.

Because of this, 13 feels like an after-school special; but despite its PG sensibility, 13 is a more honest and ultimately satisfying show. All musicals--daring or old-fashioned--require a suspension of disbelief and 13's creators seem to get this, so they don't even try to expose adolescence in any gritty detail. Instead of having the characters rip off their clothes--as in Spring Awakening--Jason Robert Brown's songs for 13 try to have the characters reveal their souls. To be fair, in only one song does this happen in any profound way--the number "What It Means To Be A Friend," powerfully sung by Sara Niemietz--but Brown's songs are always in synch with the show's modest ambitions.

The other reason 13 works is a gimmick, but it's a good gimmick. All of 13's performers--even the musicians--are actual kids in their early teens. This gives the production the rough feel of a middle-school talent show. Luckily, director Todd Graff deftly keeps the acts moving.

13 definitely whitewashes adolescence as a time where all problems can be resolved if everyone would just sing and dance together--but that's why musicals aren't for realists, they're for romantics.

13 runs through February 18 here at the Mark Taper Forum. Spring Awakening continues on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.