Before Tina Fey created “30 Rock” and penned the best-selling memoir Bossypants, and before she earned one of her nine Emmy Awards for playing Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live”, she wrote and starred in a movie that became a pop culture phenomenon: Mean Girls. A comedy of high school manners, the 2004 film centers on a trio of pink-clad tyrants (dubbed “The Plastics” by those who fear and envy them) and their manipulative relationship with a formerly homeschooled newcomer. Playing a math teacher, Fey established herself as a wry comic presence in a movie that launched catchphrases such as “So fetch!” and “Whatever — I’m getting cheese fries.”
Given Fey’s smarts and ambition, a musical adaptation of Mean Girls makes perfect sense, and the much anticipated Broadway production is set to begin performances at the August Wilson Theatre on March 12. Along with her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, Fey will make her Broadway debut as the show’s book writer, joined by lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) and Tony Award–winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin). In a recent chat with Broadway Direct, Fey discussed the transformation of Mean Girls from screen to stage and marveled at the story’s appeal to audiences of all ages.
Q: Who had the inspired idea of turning Mean Girls into a Broadway musical?
A: I have to give credit to my husband, Jeff Richmond, who is the composer of the show. After the delightful and unexpected success of the movie, he said, “You know, I think this really could be a musical.” The movie appears to be just a high school comedy, but its source material, Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes, struck a chord with people. We were excited to take these characters and get inside their hearts a little more with music.
Q: What’s amazing about Mean Girls is that in addition to being hilariously entertaining, it taps into situations everyone can relate to — which makes it perfect for a musical.
A: People not only remember the pain of being excluded [in high school] or the embarrassment of behaving that way themselves, they carry those feelings into their adult lives. With musicals, you think, Do the emotions of this story run deep enough for it to make sense that people are singing? And I think the answer here is yes.
Q: What has it been like to rethink your Mean Girls script for the stage?
A: It’s been a really fun challenge, different from anything I’ve ever done. I have an improv-theater background, and [also] a drama degree that I’m finally getting to use! I studied playwriting at the University of Virginia, so I knew this would be a different form from screenplays and television, and I’ve surrounded myself with the smartest, best people.
Q: Let’s talk about your dream team of collaborators, beginning with director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw.
A: In addition to being an incredibly open, positive person, Casey has a true comedy sense of humor. Look at his work on everything from The Book of Mormon and Spamalot to Something Rotten! and The Drowsy Chaperone — he knows where the jokes are, and he knows how to protect them and execute them, all the things that make an audience feel they can relax and enjoy the show. Watching Casey’s choreography bring the world of Mean Girls to life has been a wonderful surprise. It blows people away, and that’s an extra gift in telling the story.
Q: Nell Benjamin, who cowrote the musical adaptation of Legally Blonde, is a very witty lyricist.
A: Yes, she is — and she takes the source material [of Mean Girls] as seriously as I do in terms of telling a human story and also getting the feminist implications and the behavioral implications right.
Q: Give us a preview of your husband’s musical score.
A: It’s memorable! You won’t have that feeling of “I liked the show but I can’t remember one song.” You will leave humming these songs, and the characters have different sounds that reflect their attitude and worldview. Someone like Damian [self-imposed BFF to heroine Cady when she first arrives at North Shore High School] has a traditional Broadway sound; with Janis [a self-styled rebel and pal to Damian and Cady], it’s more of a soulful rock. Jeff’s work with comedians has helped him understand how important it is for music to be specific to a character.
Q: Do you have a favorite example of how a song enhances our understanding of the Mean Girls?
A: The character of Gretchen is the subservient friend who takes a lot of abuse from Regina George, the most popular girl. We talked a lot about giving Gretchen a song about what she wants from Regina, and the result, “What’s Wrong With Me?,” is just the sweetest, most honest expression of that imbalance of power. Ashley Park performs it beautifully, and it’s the perfect example of how to take a character in the movie and delve deeper into who she is and what she’s feeling.
Q: The movie has a huge fan base, but you don’t have to see it first to enjoy the musical.
A: Definitely not. An evening out at Mean Girls on Broadway needs to be entertaining if you’ve never heard of the movie, and we were all mindful of that. This story appeals to every generation — and not just to women, either. I feel like we ought to cut together a commercial of 55-year-old guys saying how much they enjoyed it.
Q: Were you a fan of musicals as a kid?
A: Oh, yes. I did community theater in high school, and I was always in the chorus. I once played the general of the Salvation Army in Guys and Dolls — that’s the kind of part I could get. I like traditional shows like Oliver! and The Music Man, and I am in awe of Sondheim, as any writer is. Into the Woods is one of the most perfect shows.
Q: Did you consider starring in Mean Girls on Broadway?
A: No, ma’am. I don’t sing well enough. I’d love to be in a play sometime, but I really appreciate actors who can do musicals properly. Kerry Butler plays my role, as well as the ones played in the movie by Amy Poehler and Ana Gasteyer, and she is wonderful. Kerry and I have been “mom friends” for almost 12 years, and it’s great to work together.
Q: Has being the mother of two daughters [Alice, 12, and Penelope, 6] affected your view of this material?
A: That’s a good question. When I wrote the movie, I didn’t have girls yet, and I said, “Shouldn’t we just let it be rated R?” I had to be convinced to make it PG-13, and now I’m adamant that the musical be PG-13 at most, because I feel strongly that you should be able to take your family without worrying that you’ll be surprised by something inappropriate. The topic of human decency is worth addressing at an earlier age, and there’s no need to sacrifice that just to have curse words. This is the first thing my husband and I have worked on that our daughters are really interested in, which is nice.
Q: Can you sum up the experience you hope theatergoers will have at Mean Girls?
A: First and foremost, I hope they laugh and love the songs and have a fantastic evening. But on a deeper level, I hope they feel that the show is a positive influence in the world. When I convinced Rosalind Wiseman to give us her book to make a movie, I promised that no matter how many jokes surrounded it, we would carry forward her core message, which is the importance of making the world a kinder place. In our current climate, where ugliness of behavior is fueled and rewarded, that message feels more necessary than ever.
Q: Finally, what excites you most about making your Broadway debut?
A: Seeing my name and bio in a Playbill has been a dream since I was a little kid. During our [pre-Broadway] run in Washington, I watched every performance in the back of the theatre, and I loved seeing the audience’s responses and the tiny ways the show changed night to night. Once we get to Broadway, they’re going to have a hard time getting rid of me. After we open, someone will have to say, “Sweetheart, you need to go home now.”
Photo by Mary Ellen Matthews.