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Book Review: 13: The Complete Book And Lyrics of the Broadway Musical by Dan Elish, Robert Horn and Jason Robert Brown

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A large number of young teenage students come to my singing studio to learn to sing musical theatre. It is surprising that there are not more contemporary shows oriented toward their interests and including them in their casts in significant numbers. It is refreshing to familiarize myself with a show that features teenagers almost exclusively.

I know Jason Robert Brown’s work well from working with my older students on songs from The Last Five Years and Songs for a New World. Brown’s greatest skill has always been his ability to distill modern cultural archetypes and ironies into entertainment. Brown is also a composer who is well-versed in the rock/pop influences that engages young audiences, though his style is often quite complex.

I was unfamiliar with the work of the writers of the book for 13. On investigation, I am intrigued by the combination of diverse creative styles represented by this team.

Dan Elish is a writer whose work is whimsical and creative. He has a large body of work written for children, though he appears to be successful in his writing for older audiences as well. Interestingly, he is also a proponent of teaching reading and writing skills to school-age children and he is involved in school visits to promote this cause.

Robert Horn is the Hollywood expert of the trio. His body of work is comprised largely of the currently popular life-of-decadence theme in its various permutations. The one theatre credit I could find was for his contributions to the pithy Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance. So, his experience is largely in the screen media — large and small.

The melding of these diverse personalities is evident in the story 13. The characters are largely drawn from the current list of cultural archetypes for the metropolitan American teenager. (The geek, the bully, the shy girl, the betraying best friend, etc). As in many stories of this ilk, there is a stated preference for all things New York. Yet despite the potential banality of yet another story of a bunch of kids who just want to migrate to the city, there are wonderful scenes of levity and spirit in this show.

One of my favorite moments comes in the song “I Have A Plan,” in which the main character, Evan, is brainstorming on ways in which he can manage to obtain tickets to the Rated R movie that the school bully is insisting that he get his mother to purchase in exchange for friendship. Also amusing was the use of “the tongue” as a metaphor for all things sexual. Whereas some shows would more directly relate the teens’ desire for sex, using the tongue as a replacement term retains an innocence that is reminiscent of a more classic time.

I listened to segments of the music in order to get a better sense of how the flow of the lyrics was transformed in music and melody. There are an array of group numbers with overlapping character lines with a few standout solo moments. The general feel of the compositions would be comfortable in a Disney film, which was somewhat surprising for this composer. In the notes, however, it was mentioned that in the original production the instruments were also played by teenagers. This might explain the somewhat less complex score.

It is not surprising that 13 is a popular musical to produce. The book is easy to read and comes with helpful notes regarding the original productions. The photographs are a nice addition, that allows the reader to connect with the showmanship of the piece. Having this work published and accessible to the general public is helpful in terms of exposing teens to the type of writing that is typical of theatre and also provides a timely message regarding the importance of being genuine in your approach to friendship.

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