October 8, 2008

Is "13" Too Immature for Broadway?

Tweens, that precocious generation between the ages of 8 and 15, have turned “High School Musical” into a cash cow for Disney. They made the Jonas Brothers (ages 17, 16 and 13 when they formed their band in 2005) one of the hottest acts in the music business today. They put 15 year-old Miley Cyrus on the cover of Vanity Fair this year. And they even helped Broadway’s Wicked become the international girl-powerhouse that it is. So as I sat watching the new musical 13 that opened on Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, I found myself wondering “Why didn’t someone think of this before?

This is a musical about 13 year-olds, starring a cast of 13 in which no one is older than 18 and even the onstage band is composed of players who probably just began to shave and wear bras. Unlike most of the shows aimed at this demographic (Wicked, Legally Blonde, The Little Mermaid), 13 has its eye on the boys who feel they’ve outgrown The Lion King. In fact, Broadway seems to be going a bit boy crazy this season because both the upcoming shows Billy Elliot and Shrek are aiming for the same audience.

tells the story of Evan Goldman, a New York kid whose mother moves him to Indiana after his parents divorce and just a few months before he’s due to celebrate his bar mitzvah. The plot centers around Evan’s efforts to fit in with the kids at his new school so that they’ll join the festivities marking his entry into manhood. The book is by Dan Elish (who’s written such kid-friendly novels as “Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case”) and TV writer Robert Horn. And the music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, composer of the Tony Award-winning score for Parade and the critically acclaimed The Last Five Years.

The whole idea is so smart and appealing that I really wanted to like 13. But, alas, I didn’t. It’s not the fault of the kids in the cast, who are, for the most part, talented and comfortable onstage, particularly Graham Phillips, who played Evan at the performance my friend Priscilla and I attended (he’s scheduled to take Saturday nights off). Phillips has the kind of bright, easy, and yes seductive, charm that brings to mind a junior version of the “M*A*S*H”-era mensch Alan Alda.

Other standouts include the clarion-voiced Allie Trimm as Patrice, the nice-but-non-cool girl who lives next door to Evan; and Aaron Simon Gross as Archie, a kid who gets around on crutches and a strong sense of humor. And even the young band plays well, although some of the heavy lifting is done by conductor and keyboardist Tom Kitt, whose last spin on Broadway was as the composer of the short-lived High Fidelity.

But aside from Kitt and director Jeremy Sams, who does a good job with such as young cast, I blame the show’s shortcomings on the grown-ups involved in the production. While its tunes are poppy and its lyrics witty (click here to hear a sampling), 13 struck me as the kind of show that adults think kids will find cool rather than a show that kids actually do find cool.

And I was totally turned off by how it fed into stereotypes. Does Indiana really have to be, as one song calls it, “the lamest place in the world” to live? Does the school jock have to be the predictably dumbest kid in the school? Does the blonde girl have to be the one that all the boys want? Does everyone have to be so thoroughly grossed out when two boys accidentally kiss?

Yeah, I know. I’m no where near the demographic 13 is hoping to draw. And I admit the audience the night I attended, heavily sprinkled with kids, seemed to enjoy the show, which runs just over 90 minutes. Even I got a kick out of seeing each young cast member show off in the joyful finale. And Priscilla, whose youngest is 14, said she's going to go back with her daughter and thinks that kids will like it. So what do I know? I don't even own any Jonas Brothers records.


Anonymous said...

I'm so happy that you wrote about 13 in your blog.
It is absolutely an amazing show. I love all of the talented kids, their voices and musical talents are out of this world. It is now my favorite show, so thanks again for writing about it. I hope you get the chance to see it again soon!

Anonymous said...

Uhm mycayla she said how she didnt like it.... so you know i am a teenager at age 14. I dont agree with you. I thought this show was absolutly amazing and it should never close(even if it is) This show did a better job at explaining teens life now better then disney will ever. Thank you for sharing your opinion! SO far ,besides billy elliot,this is the best show i have ever seen and i have seen more than 50 shows including in london!!

_ olivia..

jan@broadwayandme said...

I'm delighted that both of you wrote. And I'm even more pleased that you're regular theatergoers. We obviously don't all have to like the same shows but I do agree with Olivia about Billy Elliot. I thought it was great too. I'd love to hear what you guys think of Shrek when you see it. Let me know, too, if you go to any of the Christmas shows--like White Christmas, Wintuk, Slava's Snowshow. In the meantime, thanks very much for taking the time to leave a comment. jan