Television

Netflix’s Teenage Musical Makes Being 13 Seem a Little Too Safe

One of Broadway’s most hardcore shows has been turned into a Disneyfied romp.

A group of kids joyfully singing at a school dance.
13: The Musical. Alan Markfield/Netflix

13: The Musical is one of the most hardcore musicals that has ever graced Broadway. Yeah, it may be about a soon-to-be 13-year-old Jewish boy who is forced to move from New York City to a small Indiana town after his parents’ divorce, and how the pressure to make new friends consumes him. But it’s also about social politics, growing up, and the beginnings of romantic attraction. Evan, the Jewish boy in question, wants to be popular so a lot of his classmates will agree to come to his upcoming bar mitzvah—because no matter the age, the humiliation of throwing a party that no one attends is an eviscerating one.

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If you’re wondering why I’m sitting here writing about Netflix’s new movie of amusical about 13-year-olds in Indiana, it’s not because I’m particularly into that kind of thing. It’s because my high school put on a production of 13: The Musical in my senior year. And yes, my 17- and 18-year-old friends and I were in it.

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The thing about the stage production of 13 (which ran on Broadway in 2008) is that it’s actually kind of good? Jason Robert Brown, the Tony-winning composer and playwright who wrote 13, pulled zero punches. A young Ariana Grande and her future Victorious co-star Elizabeth Gillies were in the cast with other great talents singing some genuinely good songs. The thing is, though, the plot was bonkers. Topics include: cheating, blackmail, physical violence, and an obsession with kissing, aka “the tongue.” Compared to 13, Brown’s The Last Five Years, a semi-autobiographical show about the dissolution of his first marriage whose two protagonists move through time in opposite directions, seems tame. This is what made it a perfect senior production for my school: it was bonkers for 13-year-olds but fine for my more modest high school, the songs and set pieces were fun, and it talks a lot about growing up and moving onto the next chapter of your life as an adult. The perfect send-off.

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Unfortunately, Netflix’s adaptation of the film, written by Robert Horn—who co-wrote the original musical with Brown and Dan Elish—sanitizes the entire experience. Though it never promised to be the original—earlier it was revealed that Brown wrote three new original songs for the film—but I didn’t think it would be so far removed. Throughout the course of the stage musical, Evan first befriends Patrice, who harbors a crush for him, and Archie, who has muscular dystrophy. He soon finds out that his first friends are not the most popular and he ends up ditching them for the popular kids. It doesn’t work out and he comes back realizing the true power of friendship and “becoming a man.” But let’s be clear: in the stage production, Archie is sort of an asshole, Patrice is kind but a little boring, the “cool kids” are a mixture but the main three we deal with—Brett, Kendra, and Lucy—are obtuse, uneventful, and downright malicious, in that order.

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Those three new songs were added but 10 were taken out, those 10 of course being the ones that show these characters at their least admirable. In the film, Archie is sidelined with a couple of harmonies and a few quips, coming off as the saint-next-door. Brett still wants to kiss Kendra but also actually likes her and talking to her, compared to being solely focused on kissing. Lucy also manipulates Evan, but she doesn’t spread any rumors of Kendra “cheating” on Brett with Evan—that is, if you can even “cheat” at 13. The songs that convey these plotlines are entirely removed, including “Getting Ready,” in which Lucy cautions Kendra against being a “slut,” “tease,” and “skank.” Brett and Archie don’t accidentally kiss, Brett never punches Evan, and though the film hints that Patrice might have a crush on Evan, it’s mostly unclear compared to the stage production where they share a kiss towards the end.

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The movie adds some new characters, including Evan’s mother, played by Debra Messing, and his grandmother, played by the Rhea Perlman. The addition of Evan’s extended family broadens the scope of the show, although we lose some of the subjective alone-ness of a teenager’s experience, and Evan and his mother get a short song together that is sweet and well-placed. There are other highlights as well, namely the wonderful diverse cast of kids who are just as good at dancing as they are at singing the hell out of Brown’s songs. JD McCrary, most known for voicing Young Simba in the 2019 remake of The Lion King, is great as Brett along with his supporting group of bros who get their own moment to shine in the wonderful number “Bad News.” Gabriella Uhl as Patrice is perfectly cast: she has a plainJane quality while also being fierce in her convictions and her belting range. I wish she had even more screen time. Eli Golden as Evan is wonderfully charismatic. And though Lucy as a character is frankly annoying, Frankie McNellis does a great job of making her into something that’s at least fun to watch, exemplified in another great number: “Opportunity” (although they could have left out the added rap verse).

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I expected some collateral damage from the move from stage to screen like always. And these changes aren’t objectively bad: I’m not entirely sure that 13-year-olds really get into this kind of messier-than-the-Real-Housewives drama, but the bar for what is deemed appropriate on screen today is different than the bar for appropriateness on stage in 2008. I’m also certain that 13-year-olds shouldn’t be worried about being “skanks.” But to be honest, I kind of miss it. The chaotic energy and bafflingly high-stakes of the drama in 13, combined with the far-too-mature behavior of the kids, is what makes the emotional payoff at the end so rich. It’s not just the uncouth stuff that was removed, either. The film inexplicably leaves out some of the best numbers from the show, such as “Being a Geek,” which Evan performs with his rabbis, and “If That’s What It Is”—the highlight, if you’re asking this 13 veteran. It’s the resolving song that carries the show’s thesis of accepting the bad moments of life and and then trying again. The final song “A Little More Homework,” is good but doesn’t quite nail this, instead leaning on more generic messages about the long road ahead.

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I can’t entirely figure out Netflix’s reasoning for smoothing out the show’s edges, making the film in line with a more basic coming-of-age tale. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t much backlash to the content or themes when it was originally on Broadway. The choice to leave out certain songs and entire character arcs, like Archie’s, is just as baffling—Archie was a complex disabled character, representation that is still needed in today’s media. The film sacrifices some of the show’s integrity for what I can only assume is fear of backlash for depicting young kids doing and thinking about things they “shouldn’t.” It would seem as though Netflix is pivoting more towards a Disney-like approach to youth content, or perhaps the times have changed more than I thought and the 13 of yore truly wouldn’t be accepted today. But let teenagers be assholes, I say! Because they are sometimes!

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This 13 is not the one I remember from high school and not exactly how I remember being 13 myself (though neither is the stage version, to be fair). But maybe it’s the purely inspirational lighthearted content our tweens need in this never-quite-post-pandemic era. Maybe the creators were wise to make this version more prim and proper in fear of backlash and dismissal. But maybe we can let things be raw, even risk being overly mature and overblown, if the reward is a deeper satisfaction or larger lesson. Maybe we need to let teenagers be messy so that growing out of that mess means more.

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