Photo: Alanna Sheppard
Photo: Alanna Sheppard

Tina Fey and Creative Team on Broadway-Bound Mean Girls

Mean Girls is one of those coming-of-age films that rides the fine line between cult classic and mainstream appeal, with countless diehard fans quoting the movie in regular conversation and turning their favorite lines into hashtags 13 years later. And for us theatre nerds on the cult classic side of the fence, it seems only fitting that Tina Fey’s teen comedy would make its theatrical debut. The best part? DC gets to see it first.

Before Mean Girls heads to Broadway in April, the brand new musical is making its world premiere at National Theatre through December 3. To say that the show is highly anticipated is an understatement, as the buzz around the musical’s opening in our city has been growing exponentially in recent months. We had the opportunity to sit down with the musical’s creative team – Tina Fey, who wrote the book based on her screenplay for the film, her husband Jeff Richmond, who wrote the music, lyricist Nell Benjamin and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw – a week before the show’s first preview on Halloween.

Before we dive in, for anyone who is totally unfamiliar with the 2004 film exploring the sometimes painful, always dramatic hierarchy of high school cliques, Mean Girls follows a naïve Cady Heron (played by Erika Henningsen) as she navigates newfound popularity in The Plastics. The A-list girl group’s terrifying leader, Regina George (played by Taylor Louderman), shows her claws when her ex hits it off with Cady, and soon a full-on high school war is waged.

With pretty universal themes for teens, Mean Girls in 2017 doesn’t seem like much of a stretch from when the movie came out my senior year of high school, with one notable exception – technology. When I sat down with Fey, who as a total side note is as lovely and humble in person as you might imagine, I asked her how she approached modernizing the story to make sense in the halls of a present day high school.

“At its core, it’s a story about human behavior,” Fey said. “It’s not a story about social media. It’s about female instinct and female behavior at a certain period of time. So [social media] is an element of it, but it’s hopefully not taking over it.”

Nicholaw, whose award-winning Broadway credits include Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, agreed that the story needed to be slightly updated, because who takes
three-way calls on land lines anymore?

“We are updating it, but trying to also make it kind of timeless,” he said. “A lot of the things that we’re doing that are current now may not be as current in two years because things change so much now.”

The director is thinking ahead, with hopes that the musical will stay onstage for the foreseeable future. While that may seem like a no-brainer to some of us, it’s something that the creative team takes quite seriously, and that they’re relying on DC audiences to help gauge for them.

“I know this is a theatre town,” Fey, a UVA grad, said about the District. “And I know it’s a town full of smart people. Hopefully, the audience will do their job and help us finetune the show. We’re going to watch them every night to see what they respond to; to see what needs to be tightened up or expanded.”

Nicholaw said the musical is in great hands with Fey, and credits her with a seamless transition from film to stage. He was quick to point out that the show stands on its own merit, rather than being a carbon copy of the movie.

“She’s such a lover of musical theatre,” he said of Fey. “She knows that form and that medium, so she’s able to adapt things. Thank God she’s not just trying to put her film onstage.”

He said the musical definitely has the spirit of the film, but the creative team worked together to make it theatrical. Nicholaw and Fey collaborated with Richmond and Benjamin on this transition, as much of it came down to who sings, and when and why.

“I feel like the actors playing [these characters] are giving them so much heart that when they sing, you get to feel more deeply for the characters than you do in a movie,” Fey said. “In a movie, you can take a tight closeup and know what they’re feeling, and here you get to hear them bare their souls through song. It’s kind of thrilling in a different way.”

Fey said her husband – with whom she’s collaborated on SNL, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and comedy troupe The Second City, among other projects – is fully in his element as a composer with this musical.

“To have a professional lyricist to work with and a beautiful 14-piece orchestra is a dream come true for him,”  Fey said. “I’m really excited for people to hear Jeff’s music. I think it’s really good.”

Richmond said Mean Girls is uncharted territory for him and Fey as a couple, and finding their way through the process together with the help of Nicholaw and Benjamin has been a great experience.

“It’s the most joyful thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “These extremely talented young people in this cast singing these songs – it’s the most joyful thing I’ve ever been involved with.”

Richmond said he went into the creative process not wanting to pigeonhole a particular genre, or chase pop music. Instead, he created a world where the characters could each step into a different genre based on their personalities and plot lines. Rock ‘n’ roll, salsa, Rodgers and Hammerstein-style songs, and Cold Play-esque pop rock are just a few of the musical styles he’s weaved into the show.

“Jeff has this vast knowledge of all different kinds of music, and the score is not pastiche,” Benjamin said. “It’s really original and really amazing. I feel like the score is really going to be something that people want to play again and again and again.”

The feeling is mutual; Richmond describes Benjamin as a smart, humorous lyricist who has nailed the tone of the show. Benjamin, who co-wrote the score to the musical Legally Blonde with her husband, said she clearly has a thing about women figuring out power in musicals. She said there’s a way to share a universal message onstage in a fun, creative way without it seeming like a lecture, which “Tina and Jeff are better at than anybody else.” The lyricist said she also feels a responsibility to the fans.

“If I’m going to mention ‘fetch,’ I better do it in the best possible way because people are waiting to hear it,” she said. “But I think we’ve done it in a really clever, wonderful way so that you don’t feel like, ‘Oh, you’re just regurgitating the movie for us.’  We want to treat it with respect.”

Whether you feel a connection to Cady or Janice, or just enjoy the feel-good vibes and witty social commentary in this story, the creative team behind Mean Girls is clearly committed to ensuring that audiences enjoy the experience. Fey, Nicholaw, Benjamin and Richmond all expressed excitement about bringing the musical to our city first, but Richmond gave me all the feels about my hometown.

“I love this town,” he said. “I think this is a really good, smart, informed audience for us to test the show in front of. I just think it’s a really fine community. And I will say this: [DC has] the most cordial people in a city I’ve ever met. Everywhere I go, everybody just seems very nice and courteous and smiling, and I’m not joking. I really love it.”

Mean Girls will be at National Theatre through December 3, with previews running through mid-November and the official opening night on Sunday, November 19. Tickets start at $48. Check www.thenationaldc.org for details about the ticket lottery program.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org