It’s tough being a high schooler named Evan who, due to the strictures of the musical theater medium, must sing about all the hard stuff going on in his life. It can be even worse when they try to adapt your travails for the silver screen, as Universal’s Dear Evan Hansen ably demonstrated. Netflix’s production of 13: The Musical, based on the Jason Robert Brown stage musical that originally hit Broadway in 2008 (it was Ariana Grande’s professional debut!), is pretty okay, a solid mid-tier offering from Netflix that is sure to pop up in your recommendations if you enjoyed, say, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
But of course, it benefits inestimably from having been released so soon after Dear Evan Hansen, a film adaptation of a musical that managed the dubious feat of being such a bad film adaptation that it retroactively soured its source material for people. I happened to have seen 13, the original musical, just a few years ago when one of our local theater companies cast one of my daughters in it. It’s an okay musical that’s aimed at kids and works best when actual kids are cast in it. I’m not a huge connoisseur of musicals, but you can’t help but be interested in what movie musicals work versus which ones fall flat, right? Especially these last few years, when we’ve gotten some pretty good adaptations like Tick Tick Boom! and In The Heights right alongside absolute madness like Hansen and the 2019 film version of Cats, it’s worth it to consider what best practices are these days.
13 isn’t a tough one to explain: Evan (Eli Golden) is about to turn 13 and finally have his all-important Bar Mitzvah when his father cheats on his mom and splits them up. Evan and his mother (Debra Messing) move out to a corner of Indiana to live with his grandmother (Rhea Perlman!!). Evan has gone from being a regular kid in New York to the only Jewish kid in a tiny town. (I am not the kind of basement dweller who shrieks about representation in movies, but this Indiana town, pop. 2,500, has a cast of kids from every other kind of background, so it sort of confuses the narrative of it being an insular Middle American town.)
As the new kid in school, Evan finds himself standing astride the divide between the popular kids and the outcasts, and the musical’s book follows him as he tries to maneuver himself for maximum people-pleasing so he can make sure lots of people come to his Bar Mitzvah. It’s pretty low-stakes, but there’s earnestness in a few key places: There are themes of teen independence and learning to cope with your parents’ fallibility. It doesn’t hurt that some of the numbers are decent, too. Director Tamra Davis (High School Musical: The Musical—The Series) takes advantage of it, with staging that is dynamic without bending reality or resorting to nonsensical liminal spaces. Stuff like Tick Tick Boom! and In the Heights almost demand that kind of approach when they’re adapted to the screen, but it wouldn’t have worked here and it’s good they didn’t try it. Davis’ more grounded, highly choreographed approach allows the young cast—who are all really good, it must be said—to shine.
Dear Evan Hansen, meanwhile, features a lot of its stars belting at the camera without much choreography to make its subject matter interesting. The one song that departs from this is “Sincerely Me,” which is staged so dynamically that it can’t help but call attention to how boring the rest of the movie is. Colton Ryan portrays the idealized version of a dead teen, and his lyrics represent made-up bullshit that the title character is inventing in order to perpetrate a comforting lie. It’s funny, dark and well-blocked all at once—and not at all enough to redeem the rest of the musical.
That kind of high-energy delivery is all over 13, though fans of the stage show might share my disappointment at finding out that Netflix cut the one song I was looking forward to, delivered by Archie (Jonathan Lengel in the movie). Archie has unspecified medical problems in the musical, and “Terminal Illness” is about hatching a plan in which he uses this fact to play for sympathy.
Played the right way, it’s a song about trying to look on the bright side of life and making the most of the shitty hand you’ve been dealt—certainly a theme in keeping with the rest of the musical. Lengel had the chops to pull it off and uses a wheelchair himself, so it’s too bad they didn’t let him have fun with it.
The question every film adaptation raises is: Why make a movie of it? Musicals don’t immediately seem like they lose much in translation to the screen, but as stuff like Cats or Chris Columbus’ 2005 production of Rent show, the potential to mess it up is vast. 13: The Musical might not hit Netflix’s Top Ten, but it is absolutely the best musical about a sad high school kid named Evan who isn’t gay of the 2020s so far.
Kenneth Lowe is just getting started. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.