Directed by: Tamra Davis
Distributed by: Netflix
Written by Patrick Hao
I have to admit that I was confused as to why someone decided to adapt the mid-2000s Catherine Harwicke directed indie drama into a musical. But no, “13: The Musical” is not an adaptation of that film. Rather, it is an attempt by Netflix to make a teen-friendly musical to recapture that spark that “High School Musical” had back in 2006. “High School Musical’s” specter hangs over this over-exuberant production as it tries to make a modern, fun for the all family film.
Unfortunately for them, the original Broadway production of “13” with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown might not have been the best source material to make the next teen musical hit. Brown has long been a cult figure in the musical theater world. Not a box office success as Lin Manuel-Miranda or Steven Schwartz, Brown has been known for his more conceptual musicals with rhythmically complex and dynamic harmonies and rhythm. His musicals such as “The Last Five Years” or “Songs of the New World” played with narrative form and experimented with musical styles, becoming the type of “if you know you know” productions amongst musical theater nerds. “13” was a conceptual production, consisting of 13 teenage cast members and becoming best known as the Broadway debut of Ariana Grande in a bit part.
The film adaptation differs from the original Broadway production in many ways. First, it dispenses with the “Peanuts” idea of being set entirely in a world of children without any adults appearing in the film. It adds Debra Messing as the recently divorced mom of the protagonist, Evan Goldman (Eli Golden). Josh Peck as a hip cool rabbi, Rhea Perlman as Evan’s grandmother, and Peter Harmann as Evan’s father. The film also rearranges many of the songs to give them a more modern-sounding tone. Songs like “Opportunity” are rearranged to sound like something from the radio while other songs like fan-favorite “Hey Kendra” are replaced with new songs written by Brown. This has garnered controversy amongst the cult fanbase who want fidelity to the original source material. But, really all these compromises do is suck any distinctive qualities from the film.
This is especially disappointing considering the fact that Tamra Davis directed this film. The former Francis Ford Coppola apprentice who directed counterculture works such as “CB4” and “Billy Madison” seemed like she could have infused this film with more personality. However, the ultimate result is something with a plastic sheen made to be pre-packaged in hopes of breaking through the wall-to-wall content that is offered by Netflix. The children are played by a group of precocious teens who look like they went down past Columbus Circle from their uptown apartments, let alone come from rural Indiana. Their perfectly precise dress and quaffed hair, and perfectly diverse cast speak to just how inauthentic this all feels.
If “High School Musical” was a phenomenon, it was because it embraced the fakeness of it all. It perfectly coalesced into something earnest that became camp, partially because the original production was kind of a gamble. “13: The Musical” is trying to recreate that phenomenon 16 years later, with younger kids amongst a sea of content, becoming something for no one. The Broadway crowd hates it, the movie is dull, and I’m not sure if the intended teenage audience will even find it.
“13: The Musical” Trailer