High School Musicals

by |
10/13/2008 1:58 PM |

Hey kids let’s put on a show like 13, on Broadway, or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, in theaters, so that Jesse Hassenger can blog about it on thelmagazine.com.

Late in the new Broadway musical 13, one of the show’s many adolescent stars muses — and I’m paraphrasing here — that this story may not end with particular happiness, “at least until Disney rewrites it.” Earlier, a character responds to an excited “did you hear?!” with an equally excited (but, through the authors, more than a little sarcastic) “they’re turning Shrek into a musical?”

It’s easy to take these nudges as potshots, stemming from the, in fact, quite Shrek-y idea that a work can be made immeasurably more hip and sophisticated by bringing up another work (as with that movie’s “satire” of fairy tales that have been spoofed, satirized, ribbed, and kidded more or less non-stop since, conservatively, the birth of television, or, more liberally, about two days after the first fairy tale was told). But I have to say, the made-for-press story on 13 — that it’s the real High School Musical, with real thirteen-year-olds acting, singing, and even playing the music, come to rescue us from a Disney-and-now-DreamWorks-ified Broadway — isn’t such a bad one. 13 is certainly family-friendly (were it a film, it would be a soft PG-13 at worst), but it’s more risqué in its first five or ten minutes than the High School Musical franchise has managed in its three tortuous hours so far (number three drops 10/24, yo!).

Of course, so is any given episode of Lizzie McGuire. Make no mistake: as much as some of us might pine for a young teenage musical written with the care and nuance that went into Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, or even The Wonder Years, 13 is more of a well-meaning teen comedy adjusted down a few years, co-written by a Designing Women alum. Still, the well-worn set-up has an ache of reality nowhere near the antiseptic High School Musical: Just a few months away from his bar mitzvah, Evan (Graham Phillips) has to leave his Manhattan upbringing for small-town Indiana; his parents have divorced and his mom wants a fresh start.

Before school starts, Even meets Patrice (Allie Trimm), a neighborhood girl, and they become good friends, although the show rushes shamelessly through that blossoming; it’s handled, in fact, through a few sung lines of exposition, and not much that we’re actually allowed to see.

In fact, it’s hard to watch the show without thinking about its holes in motivation, emotion, and detail. Evan’s specific transition from Manhattan to Indiana, or for that matter his specific Jewishness, gets lost in generalities; the first half-hour or so touches upon his new home as a suburban sprawl rife with Christianity (complete with Patrice’s sweet stong “The Lamest Place in the World”), but soon Evan is embroiled in the kind of popular-kids-versus-outcasts soap that could be happening anywhere. I guess universalism is the point, but if these situations are so universal, you have to wonder why Evan doesn’t seem to have faced them back in New York.

An upside to the show’s one-act brevity is that it lacks the second-act collapse that seems to afflict even the most ambitious musicals, especially, for some reason, those about young people (Rent is a good example; Spring Awakening is a better/worse one). And in complaining about its slick rush, I’m shortchanging all that is quite wonderful and unpretentious about 13. Only a handful of the young actors have that hammy, borderline-creepy overtrained professionalism thing going on; most of the, especially leads Phillips and Trimm as well as the Lohan-esque Elizabeth Egan Ellies (playing token mean girl Lucy), are terrifically energetic and relatable. Let’s not kid ourselves that anyone onstage is less than cute, but they’re still – maybe by virtue of their mostly-theatrical roots – not as insanely scrubbed as most Hollywood approximations of teenagers.

Moreover, 13 gets the kind of awkward social frenzy that goes on at that age; a scene set in a movie theater, where the gaggle of kids have finagled their way into a ridiculous gory horror movie (we only get sound effects, red light, and occasional mortified descriptions), is a beautifully staged bit of anxious comedy. The Ashton Kutcher-ish Eric Nelsen has a terrific moment later as he’s caught in the middle of “Tell Her,” the obligatory wistful reconciliation duet. The humor of the show is often like that: sly and/or cute like that, which is to say it’s often actually funny, not just “Broadway” funny (the most dramatic example of the difference can be seen when pitting Monty Python and the Holy Grail against Spamalot).

Though it’s not particularly revolutionary in content, 13 is arresting for its demographic position on alternately fusty and family-friend Broadway: it’s a YA musical, aimed at the same kids who might, now or in a few years, pick up Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist — by which I mean the book, though the movie version applies too. While 13 is about kids making their first steps into teendom and maybe, eventually, the sorta-real world, Nick & Norah looks at kids who have grown into themselves a little more; they’re more self-aware about their silly romantic dilemmas, seeking the acceptance of maybe one other person, not a whole crowd. Some critics (for better or for worse) mocked the movie ad campaign’s superficial resemblance to Juno, but apart from the fonts, indie rock, and Michael Cera, the two movies share a delicate look at how teenagers cautiously (or heedlessly) define themselves.

The movie version of this beloved YA book, with its big studio and marketable soundtrack, might be just as suspect as 13 for its potential as youth-targeted but undangerous product – maybe moreso, for bringing New York indie rock kids into malls across America (you know, as if they’d never set foot in one before). But one of the chief virtues of the film is its casual, unforced way with, well, just about everything. It’s shot mostly in New York locations, without turning into a tourist brochure; it’s funny without ever straining for laughs; and it’s romantic but never maudlin or cheap.

You can certainly credit director Peter Sollett, for keeping a brisk but unrushed pace, or screenwriter Lorene Scafaria, for jettisoning some of the relentless stream-of-consciousness emo musings David Levithan brought to his half of the novel in what sometimes feels like a desperate, endless attempt to make you feel all of these teenage feelings that come rushing at you all at once together flooding racing through you like, well, you’re getting the picture (Rachel Cohn wrote Norah’s chapters of the book, with a bit more restraint). They do well by the source material.

But the movie really seems to be taking its cue from its leads. Michael Cera plays Nick, the only straight member of a queercore band, broken-hearted over his bitchy ex Tris (Alexis Dziena), with his usual lil’ Woody Allen mumbled wisecracks and tentative conversational techniques, and Kat Dennings is a perfect match as Norah, daughter of a record-industry big-shot, frenemy of Tris, and babysitting perpetually wasted Caroline (Ari Gaynor).

Having especially enjoyed Cohn’s first-person portrayal of Norah in the book, I was afraid the movie version wouldn’t match up; that she’d become more of a standard-issuer of dry sarcasm, a la Daria. But Dennings taps into Norah’s subtle but present current of dorkiness, and despite the actress’s bombshell potential, she’s believable as a girl who might retreat back to her first serious relationship, with Tal (Jay Baruchel), a cloddish guy who goes from self-righteous and vaguely humorless on the page to a broader caricature of a heartless user onscreen.

Some of that nuance is lost, but the film retains Norah’s Jewishness, moreso, even, than the supposedly bar mitzvah-centric 13. Most of 13‘s jokes about Judaism just involve saying the words “Jew” or “Jewish”; it’s not too removed from South Park in that respect. Nick & Norah barely even makes jokes (though the cover of Tal’s Jewish rock CD is pretty hilarious); it’s a natural part of the movie’s New York world, like its gay characters, teenage sexuality, or Bishop Allen.

As a fan of the book, and of, you know, good movies, I would’ve liked to see the film version preserve a little more of the Before Sunrise vibe you get on the page – longer scenes where Nick and Norah just talk and get to know one another. Cera is in peak form when he gets to open his heart just a little more; think of him trying, and failing, to confess his feelings toward Maebe on Arrested Development, or his wounded frustration with Jonah Hill in Superbad, or even his admitting, towards the end of Juno, that he tries “really hard, actually,” to seem cool. The movie misses an opportunity to go further with his emotional openness – maybe filmmakers were understandably fearful of hitting one of Levithan’s ever-gushing emo veins.

If I have any other problems with this perfectly charming picture, it’s that Sollett may not have the eye of a soulless co-opting studio hack, but he comes close to having the ear of same, pasting alt-rock songs on the tops and bottoms of scenes like a music exec with full reign over Dawson’s Creek. There are a few moments that are genuinely song-scored, but for some reason a lot of youth-targeted movies assemble all-star soundtracks only to have the songs and artists fade in and out interchangeably. Similarly, the arrangements in 13 are just a touch lite – the best numbers, like opener “13,” have an angsty energy similar to Spring Awakening, but without that show’s full-on commitment to rocking out. When the songs make forays into other genres, the keyboard-heavy Radio Disney instrumentation muffles any sense of experimentation, homage, satire – it all becomes the cute pop musical version of whatever.

Both 13 and the film of Nick & Norah seem to keep music at arm’s length – the latter even frames a moment of romantic triumph around more or less abandoning it – as if afraid of making the wrong choice and/or striking a dissonant note (the musical touches in Nick & Norah that truly reasonate come when the characters discuss bands completely invented by Levithan and Cohn – in other words, music that can’t be turned up or down or switched around by label wonks). They lack the heedlessness of those best movie-song moments, or, for that matter, the most electrifying musicals, which are borne out of that connection, not American Idol-style vocal runs.

But until Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson start giving seminars on how to really use pop music, not just add it, the existence of these mainstream takes on teenage life is more step in the right direction than depressing co-opting of the youth vote. Like John Hughes movies (and considerably less preppy in their endgames), 13 and Nick & Norah get the little gestures and big emotions equally, approximately correct. At least until Disney rewrites it.