As a teenager in Pennsylvania in the mid-eighties, Tina Fey was a diligent, successful student, an enthusiastic member of the choir, an editor of the school paper, and a self-described musical-theater nerd. She found her niche working at a local youth theater called Summer Showtime, memorized cast albums—from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to the obscure The Baker’s Wife—and, though not much of a singer, managed to land parts in several school productions, playing Frenchy in Grease and, later, Sally Bowles in Cabaret. “That was a mistake,” she says, “but I tried.”
Fey, of course, grew up to become a comedy legend and a cultural force, not to mention an emblem of girl power in a boys’ world, conquering—as a writer, producer, and performer—the realms of television (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), film (Mean Girls), and letters (her 2011 autobiography, Bossypants, spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times best-seller list). But Fey has never forayed into the art form of her adolescence. “Kind of like the way a lot of people love sports but can’t actually play the sport they’re a fan of—that’s always been me with musical theater,” she says.
That’s about to change. This month Fey’s hilarious, high-octane musical adaptation of her—and I don’t use this word lightly—iconic 2004 high school comedy Mean Girls comes to Broadway from a sold-out run in Washington, D.C., with music by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde), and direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, who, between Spamalot and The Book of Mormon, has shown that he knows a thing or two about making comedy sing and dance. “To be even remotely connected to a Broadway musical—and to get my name in a Playbill—is a lifelong dream come true,” Fey says.
Mean Girls is so good not just because it’s wickedly funny but because it diagrams the high school social order with anthropological precision—and captures the emotional roller coaster of being a teenager in a way that rings queasily true. It made Lindsay Lohan a star as a naive teen who transfers to a suburban Chicago high school and finds herself in the orbit of a superhot alpha-female trio known as the Plastics. And it added such indelible phrases to our culture at large as “That’s so fetch” and “That’s why her hair is so big—it’s full of secrets.”
“We all recognized ourselves in the movie, and it wasn’t the Hollywood version of us,” says Benjamin, who went to an all-girls high school in New York City and describes her teen self as a people-pleasing teacher’s pet. “When I got called about working on the show and found out I was going to meet Tina, I was, like, ‘Oh my God oh my God. Act normal. Act normal.’ Which means I didn’t actually pay close attention to the lessons of the film.”
Those lessons were inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book Queen Bees & Wannabes, a guide for mothers to help their daughters navigate the perils of adolescence. Fey was drawn to the book and found herself simultaneously amused, appalled, and awed by the ingenuity of the cruelties it cataloged. “What girls are capable of doing to each other—what they come up with,” says Fey, “is hilarious and insidious.”
Fey and Richmond had been thinking about a musical of Mean Girls for a while but were inspired to take action after seeing The Book of Mormon, which made them realize that there was a place on Broadway for something funny and fresh and subversive. Fey has simply moved the action from 2004 to the present (a presidential reference, which I won’t give away, brings down the house) and updated the script to include the latest weapons in the mean-girl arsenal—smartphones and social media. Brought to life by a uniformly sensational cast, the plot still revolves around the arrival at North Shore High of sweet, calculus-loving Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen), who is taken under the collective wing of the outcast Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and the “too gay to function” Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), who introduce her to their stratified social world. Cady is soon invited to sit at the lunch table of the much-feared Plastics (fabulously decked out by Gregg Barnes in a series of eye-popping, candy-colored, skin-baring ensembles), whose Queen Bee is the imperious Regina George (Taylor Louderman), attended by the desperate-to-win-her-favor Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and the hot but dim Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell). But when Regina steals back her ex Aaron (Kyle Selig), the cute guy from calc class that Cady has a crush on, Cady decides to become a mean girl herself.
The creative team has managed to seamlessly translate the film’s fizzy surface and dark heart to the musical stage. Richmond, another former high school theater nerd, brings his gift for witty, catchy melodies to create an inventively bubbly score that spans traditional Broadway, rock, and a hint of James Bond, with subtle nods to Sondheim. Benjamin’s nimble lyrics add new depth to the characters, while also landing jokes that feel of a piece with Fey’s script. Standouts include the Lion King–flavored “Wild Life,” which takes us from the African savanna to the more frightening jungle of North Shore High; Henson’s showstopping “Where Do You Belong?”; and Henningsen’s goofily plaintive “Stupid with Love.” One of the few director-choreographers with an ability to make production numbers laugh-out-loud funny, Nicholaw brings a similarly eclectic approach to his dances for Mean Girls, moving things along with cinematic fluidity, helped by the invention of Scott Pask’s colorful cartoon sets and video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young’s perpetual-motion LED video, which allows scenes to literally dissolve from one into the next.
The sensational young women of the Mean Girls cast—expert comedians with fierce voices and acting chops to match—all describe themselves as teenage outsiders in one way or another, and most of them were in high school or middle school when Mean Girls first became part of their DNA. “It completely shaped the rhetoric of my generation,” Park says. “It was the first thing of its kind that made me think, Oh my God—those are the exact complicated nuances that go on inside a girl’s head.”
“It really articulated the specific kind of cruelty that happens with teenage girls,” adds Weed.
“We’ve all been one character or another in this story,” says Rockwell. “We all know what it’s like to try to change ourselves to fit in—and we all know what it feels like when that doesn’t work out.”
If the women in the cast are excited to be stepping into the shoes of the characters that defined their youth, they’re also loving the chance to live out alternate versions of their high school selves. “I fall more on the insecure side of things,” Louderman says. “But as Regina, there are moments in the show where I’m literally above the others, standing in a power position, with laser-beam eyes. And those are things that I don’t normally get to do or feel.”
Henningsen, who plays both na?f and mean girl, relishes exploring another side of herself. “Every time I make that entrance after her transformation, I think, OK, what fierce woman am I going to channel tonight? Sometimes it would be Beyoncé. Sometimes it would be Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones. Obviously it comes back to bite Cady—but for that moment, getting to be that badass rock star, it’s amazing.”
In this story:
Sittings Editor: Phyllis Posnick.
Hair: Joshua First; Makeup: Milagros-Medina Cerdeira; Manicure: Yuko Tsuchihashi.
Costume design: Gregg Barnes; Hair design: Josh Marquette.
Tailor: Hailey at Stitched Tailors.