Original Broadway Cast, 2008 (Ghostlight) (2 / 5) Musical theater writers from Strouse and Adams to Pasek and Paul have tried to write musicals capturing the spirit of what it means to be a teenager. As a teen myself (at this writing), I have to report that Jason Robert Brown’s 13 is pretty far off the target. Brown, who has written brilliant and complex musicals about adults, did not apply the layers to these young characters that they deserve, instead choosing to employ stereotypes and a paper-thin plotline that does not merit such a lengthy score. The show tells the story of about-to-be Bar Mitzvah boy Evan (portrayed admirably by Graham Phillips), who finds his life uprooted after his parents get divorced and he is forced to move from New York City to a town in Indiana, referred to by the show’s best known song as “The Lamest Place in the World.” The opening number/title song is quite catchy and fun, but the score goes downhill from there. One of the oddest touches is “Terminal Illness,” a comedic song that Evan sings to his friend Archie (Aaron Simon Gross), who has been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, as a way of convincing him to use his disease for emotional manipulation of others. The song comes across as not only tone-deaf, but so upsetting in reference to a 13-year-old boy that its place at the beginning of the album lost this listener. The more fun moments in 13 are conveyed in admittedly simple music and lyrics, such as the cheerleading blast “Opportunity” (cut from the stage show but included on the recording) and the doo-wop-inspired “Bad, Bad News.” This show deserves credit for casting actors whose ages were close to those of their characters, but that’s not entirely an upside, as the voices of the pubescent actors sometimes sound pretty rough and untrained. That said, 13 served as a very early credit for future superstars Elizabeth Gillies and Ariana Grande. Both of them give charming performances, but in the end, none of the earnest cast members can salvage the material, especially the show’s almost laughably predictable conclusion: “A Little More Homework.” Nor are they helped by the fact that every song is about twice as long as it needs to be. Puberty is unquestionably difficult to get through, but did a musical about it need to give us the same feeling? — Charles Kirsch
Film Soundtrack, 2022 (Netflix Music) (4 / 5) Right from the start of this recording, it’s easy to tell that the score of 13 has been completely redone for the Netflix film version — but that’s not a bad thing. Vocals are provided by child actors including the charming Eli Golden as Evan and Gabriella Uhl, who is talented beyond her years, as his neighbor Patrice. These performances combined with new, pop orchestrations make 13 what it always should’ve been: a high-octane, if slightly generic, romp. In this form, with 30 minutes of musical filler taken out and three new songs added, the score is far better suited to the thin story and manages to make more of an impact by trying to do less. Brown’s new compositions are noteworthy, especially “It Would Be Funny,” a heartfelt and catchy duet for Evan and the added character of his mother (played nicely by Debra Messing). “The Bloodmaster” is an excellent song for a moment that always should have been musicalized. “I’ve Been Waiting” uses the lead vocals of Lindsey Blackwell to bring a more up-to-date musical style to the score. Bonus tracks include an admirable rendition of “What It Means to Be a Friend,” sadly cut from the final product, and an auto-tuned cover of “Tell Her” by Alec Benjamin that effectively hides the song’s sappy lyrics. While purists will prefer a fuller version of the score, those seeking a shorter and sweeter listening experience should choose the Netflix album. — C.K.