Behind the Music of Mean Girls

Behind the Music of Mean Girls

The Plastics are back and ready to paint the town pink in their Broadway bow.

For the uninitiated, that group, introduced to movie fans in 2004’s comedy classic Mean Girls, isn’t a rock band, but rather the unholy trinity of popular girls reigning over a suburban Illinois high school, where an ingénue named Cady Heron unwittingly arrives after growing up in Africa. Cady was played on screen by a young Lindsay Lohan, with Rachel McAdams cast as The Plastics’ venomous leader, Regina George.

At the August Wilson Theatre, where the musical Mean Girls is set to begin previews March 12 and open April 8, Cady and Regina will be reintroduced by Erika Henningsen and Taylor Louderman, respectively. The librettist guiding them is the film’s celebrated screenwriter and costar, Tina Fey, who chose as her creative partners one longtime collaborator — her husband, composer and three-time Emmy Award winner Jeff Richmond — and one new one, Nell Benjamin, who wrote the music and lyrics for a stage adaptation of Legally Blonde, produced on Broadway in 2007.

Benjamin, who wrote lyrics to accompany Richmond’s score, considers the original Mean Girls “a watershed in comedy. It totally spoke to me, as it did to pretty much every other girl on the planet. When I heard it was going to be a musical, I desperately wanted to be in on it. It was like breaking into the cool girls’ clique.”

Happily, Fey and Richmond proved less intimidating than The Plastics when Benjamin landed a meeting with the couple. “They’re the kindest, smartest, funniest, most down-to-earth people. It would have been a stress-free interview had I not been chanting over and over to myself, ‘Please let me get this, God.’”

Richmond, a longtime musical-theater fan who majored in the subject at college, says that while he and Fey “both come from live theater” — they met while working with Chicago’s famed improvisational troupe The Second City — they sought a lyricist “who had worked in the Broadway world, and worked on a bunch of shows. Nell is super-smart and super-talented, and her voice feels like an extension of Tina’s. She can write with that point of view.”

Like the film, the musical Mean Girls is set in the present; The Plastics now have social media as “a weapon in their arsenal,” Richmond quips. “What made me a little nervous is that we’re in an extremely contemporary world, so we had to have a fresh style while also representing the eclectic nature of the characters. Rolfe Kent scored the movie, he wanted to score Regina like a James Bond villain, so we could go with that.” Composing for Damian, a gay character who wryly observes the school’s social dynamics with his friend Janis, “we could use a more old-fashioned musical-theater style.”

Adds Benjamin, “The movie was so good at detailing these characters, but in the musical you get to spend a little more time with them” — including key supporting figures such as Damian and Janis, who become “theatrical guides” on stage.

The creators were also keen to further explore the more serious themes underlying Mean Girls’ satirical humor. Benjamin says that she and Fey revisited the book that inspired the movie, Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabes. “Both of us have young daughters, and we asked, What is it about the expectations we give young women that leads to this relational aggression? Unfortunately, that’s a hugely appropriate subject right now — how girls are not always listened to. If they make strong statements, they can be discounted as pushy or bitchy or slutty.”

Richmond and Fey’s daughters are 6 and 12, and both saw the musical during its pre-Broadway run in Washington last fall. “It does resonate with them,” Richmond says. “My younger daughter just likes the music and dancing, but my older daughter recognizes the behavior as well.”

Washington audiences, Benjamin notes, included “women who had grown up with the movie and people bringing their older daughters. But it seemed to hit a nerve across the board. Whether you’re male or female, defending someone against a bully is scary. One of the roughest things you can do in life is stand up for someone you have no stake with, and it’s the most necessary courage to have.”

Richmond says, “We’re always thinking about the messaging. It’s very relevant in its literal association with what’s happening with kids in school, but there’s also the bigger picture of how you can carry that dynamic throughout life, in a world where you’re able to use words and social media to hurt people.”

At the same time, Richmond says, “we’ve written a musical comedy.” Or as Benjamin puts it: “What Tina and Jeff do best is making you laugh your ass off, but also recognize truth. That’s the joy of this musical.”

Photo by Joan Marcus.

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