This clearly was Jason Robert Brown’s attempt to make a more legit, sophisticated work in the vein of Disney’s wildly successful High School Musical franchise. The score, while not up to Brown’s usual standards, was better than that of the HSM movies. Sure, the title-song might be a pretty direct ripoff of “Hello, Twelve” from A Chorus Line, “What It Means to Be a Friend” might be a little sugary, and the climactic anthem “A Little More Homework” might be a bit too pat, but the tunes are sophisticated and appealing, especially the winning “The Lamest Place In the World”, the spoofy “Hey Kendra” and the r&b-flavored “It Can’t Be True”.
But what made the High School Musical franchise so charming was its refusal to pretend to be anything more than it was: lightweight, carefree musical-comedy formula with an updated musical sound. 13 doesn’t seem to know who its target market is…it doesn’t seem sure if it’s supposed to be aimed at preteens or adults. The story is too downbeat and pessimistic for a teen-oriented Musical Comedy like HSM, but too trivial and lightweight for a serious coming-of-age story, and the script is loaded with sophisticated quips that, while often genuinely funny, don’t really sound like anything the preteen characters would ever be likely to say.
Worse, the show combines old-fashioned wholesomeness in the HSM vein with some ill-advised attempts to be edgy, the most unfortunate of which involves a supporting player with a terminal illness that is played for what may be the most awkward laughs of the decade. This not only results in general discomfort and provides the show’s worst song, the guilt-trip ballad “(No-One Says No to a Boy With a) Terminal Illness”, but it makes it hard to care about the generic teenage problems of the protagonist when one of his friends devolves from crutches to a wheelchair with the prospect of early death ahead in the background.
Compounding this confusion is a basic misjudgment in the show’s chosen medium—due to the $100+ ticket prices, the ‘tween’ audience Brown was (for the most part) going for isn’t really a Broadway-going crowd. There’s a reason the gigantically successful franchise that inspired him began on television and not the Broadway stage. That same reason also probably accounts for why, while the show was a quick flop on Broadway, it has achieved a surprising degree of success in regional theater, becoming, like the 9 to 5 musical, one of that new breed of show that achieves its success not on Broadway but in local productions.
Ultimately, this show was a mistake on several levels, and while it had its merits, its failure was not exactly undeserved. That said, given its success in the regional market, audiences must be seeing something in it, and frankly between the delightful score and the awkward but nonetheless often funny book, I can see it making for a highly enjoyable evening for a not-too-discriminating audience.