13: The Musical is jam-packed with catchy, uplifting tunes but overly simplifies the teenage existence to a fault, losing a lot of the charm of the original
Starring Eli Golden, Frankie McNellis, JD McCrary, Josh Peck, Peter Hermann, Debra Messing, and Rhea Perlman
As an adult, there is something unspeakably joyous about watching teenagers innocently enjoying what they’re passionate about: and incredibly talented at. This forms a huge part of the appeal of 13: The Musical. Adapted from a Broadway show, 13: The Musical is notable for being the first (and to date only) Broadway show whose full cast and band were teenagers. Though it only lasted for 105 performances, 13: The Musical routinely impressed with its immensely talented, young cast. Netflix’s adaptation similarly impresses, but with only a 90-minute runtime it condenses and removes an awful lot from the stage version which leaves the movie feeling relatively flat and without stakes. For whatever reason, creative decisions were made that removed a lot of the drama, making all of the young cast seem unrealistically wholesome and consequently unrealistic.
13: The Musical finds our protagonist, Evan (played terrifically by Eli Golden, an absolute star) uprooted from his familiar life in New York to live in Indiana with his mum (Debra Messing) and grandma (Rhea Perlman) after his dad (Peter Hermann) fell in love with another woman. Evan suddenly finds himself with no friends as he prepares for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. Though he quickly bonds with next door neighbour Patrice (Gabriella Uhl) over the summer, when the school year begins again, Evan becomes increasingly more obsessed with maximising his popularity to ensure that as many people as possible come to his party.
Unfortunately, this puts his friendship with Patrice in jeopardy as he starts to get closer to popular kids Brett (JD McCrary) and Kendra (Lindsey Blackwell), while also becoming wrapped up in quasi-antagonist Lucy’s (Frankie McNellis) flimsily motivated schemes.
Once Evan starts to become engrossed in his quest to attain popularity, most savvy audience members will be aware that events will only become worse before they get better. Unfortunately, 13: The Musical just doesn’t nail the emotional stakes required. Though it certainly attempts to make it appear as if Evan’s life has come to a grinding halt, not enough work has been done to flesh out the characters to make his quandary seem even remotely dire. In simplifying the narrative from the stage version, Evan is never permitted to look anything other than angelic, and the rift in his relationship with Patrice merely comes from her feeling betrayed at him making other friends instead of him ever doing anything overtly unkind to her. In fact, all of the characters suffer from this. In making a wholesome movie, it denies any of the characters even a semblance of unpleasantness, and considering Lucy and Kendra’s status as best friends who perform some sort of romantic relay race with the same boy, these characters manage to escape that thorny teenage situation without even one insult passing between the two.
Translating a musical from stage to screen inherently comes with a host of necessary changes, mainly concerning narrative drive. Both Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and Dear Evan Hansen had to cut a lot of material from the stage show in order to make a coherent film, and the same is true of 13: The Musical but, despite the screenplay being written by Robert Horn (who wrote the book for the stage musical along with Dan Elish), it removes an awful lot of the narrative drive and complexity that the stage musical possessed.
The stage musical allowed Evan to be more morally ambiguous – to allow him to be more caught up in teenage drama than even exists in the film. By removing the complexity and the unpleasantness between characters, the attempt at a coming-of-age narrative falls flat. Because Evan has never really done anything particularly bad, the impact of his redemption is limited as he never really did anything that warranted being ostracised in the first place.
It almost feels as if the script is being pulled in multiple different directions, which is perhaps to be predicted when creating a musical film for Netflix, whose target audience for this teenage musical seems to be directed more clearly at a primary school level. While flattening the dramatic drive of the stage musical, Horn takes some time to explore the adult characters which were absent in the stage show. There’s a small through-line of Evan not talking to his dad following the move, as well as Evan’s mum finding her purpose again after the divorce. This doesn’t especially dominate the narrative, however, and easily could have been cut – and mainly seems to be there to justify Debra Messing‘s involvement in the film which, considering the target audience, doesn’t seem especially necessary anyway.
It is clear, therefore, that what 13: The Musical principally lacks is an abundance of plot, which some might say is a fairly important bedrock within storytelling. What redeems 13: The Musical, however is its score. With many songs from the original Broadway show, coupled with some new tracks to service the slightly adapted narrative, Jason Robert Brown continues to prove that he knows how to write a zippy, uplifting melody. It is very high energy and contemporary pop musical theatre and, when accompanied by Jamal Sims’ bombastic choreography, it is nearly impossible not to smile. Particular highlights are “I’ve Been Waiting” and “Bad Bad News”, though there’s hardly a weak song in the bunch.
Despite the promising premise of a child of divorce being uprooted to a school where they are entirely new, 13: The Musical makes no attempt to pretend that it is anything other than surface-level entertainment. It has some nice songs and a plot that physically happens, Josh Peck for some reason, Debra Messing singing for a more unclear reason and that’s pretty much it.
Teenage years are characterised by having overwhelming feelings over what feel like small, inconsequential things to adults yet none of that intensity is portrayed here. Everything has been sanitised and polished to make it as uncontroversial as possible and the stakes of the story suffer as a result, as does its portrayal of teenage existence with a notable absence of any sort of teenage angst or any unpleasantness whatsoever. Even when we steal each other’s boyfriends, apparently.
13: The Musical is now streaming on Netflix.