TORONTO – In a basement studio, wannabe musical theatre stars sporting Uggs and Chuck Taylors shuffle their feet, smile through braces and deliver a dazzling rendition of “A Little More Homework” from the Broadway musical “13.”
The tittering teenagers glance at each other nervously as someone hits a wrong note, and wide-eyed, they wait to see how the teacher will respond.
On this day, the “teacher” is Tony Award-winning Jason Robert Brown, who has written the song and knows every note, every key.
“This has no groove to it if you start belting it out,” says Brown, in his fast-talking, shtick-dishing manner, as he pokes fun at cracking voices and quivering notes.
“I’m not trying to be mean. Am I mean?” Brown asks, pausing.
“I’m mean!” he says declaratively to a room full of laughter, realizing his talk-now, think-later method may offend some.
The resurgence of musicals targeting teens has brought a new group of young, inspired, spotlight-searching fans to the genre.
From the popularity of the hit musical-theatre inspired television show “Glee,” to the massively popular tween sensation “High School Musical,” it seems the theatre geek is no longer lurking behind the curtains.
Brown was in Toronto briefly rehearsing with kids from the Toronto Youth Music Theatre Company as part of a performance with his band at the Glenn Gould Studio.
His own musical “13,” which debuted on Broadway in 2008, focused on the trials and tribulations of a teenage boy about to celebrate his bar mitzvah after an abrupt move from New York City to Indiana.
“When I started ’13’ the impetus was less about ‘oh, I love working with kids’ than it was that there is such inherent drama at that age,” said Brown, after he wrapped up the two-hour long rehearsal with the group of Toronto teens.
“You know any time you’re around a bunch of kids you have two completely conflicting responses to them. The first of which is, ‘God, I wish I could kill all of them’ and the second is, ‘boy, aren’t they the greatest thing in the world?”‘
The 39-year-old Brown is also considered part of a new generation of composers who appeals to a wider audience with edgy humour and pop-rock inspired music.
“It’s enormously exciting. It’s allowing people to connect to musical theatre, which I think is so important when we think of that demographic as normally being older,” says Michael Rubinoff, one of the producers of the Toronto performance.
Musical theatre seems to be embracing an adolescent audience by borrowing teen-angst tales and pubescent performers, and it has made the Broadway stage seem a little more accessible to some.
“I’ve been dreaming of working with someone on Broadway for so long and it was amazing,” said a breathless 17-year-old Meghan Chalmers after the rehearsal with Brown.
Many of the young theatre aficionados have embraced geek-dom, believing musical theatre has hit the zenith of cool in pop culture.
“I love ‘Glee,’ like L-O-V-E love ‘Glee,”‘ said a nose-pierced, 14-year-old Abby Weisbrot with a gasp and a grin.
“They’re finally taking the joy and fun of musical theatre and putting it in film and television,” said Matthew Del Bel Belluz.
At 16, the actor already has completed several professional productions. Almost a veteran, he said he may retire to tackle other challenges.
“I’d love to be a ‘Glee’ kid. I sort of am a ‘Glee’ kid,” Chalmers added to the flurry of commentary from the young performers.
The derisive term “theatre geek” has been co-opted as cool. It’s a marker and badge of honour for kids, and even Brown can see it seeping into the psyche of young performers.
“It’s that culture of theatre geek-ness, which I understood growing up, but it’s a much more identifiable niche now than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” said Brown, who worked with dozens of teens on various performances of ’13.’
Brown admitted that the keen theatre kid who can recite the original cast of “Gypsy,” doesn’t always make the best performer, and he’s reluctant to support cookie-cutter films and TV shows that are peppered with pop music and cliches about teenagers.
“I think the more musical element of it is in some sense gratifying,” said Brown.
“But the music is so unsophisticated to the kind of work that I do, that it doesn’t turn me on, but I guess you gotta start some place.”