Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by the decade-long wait for Mean Girls to come to Broadway. Tina Fey’s queen bee comedy arrived in theaters in 2004, marking Fey’s feature screenwriting debut and becoming an instantly quotable millennial classic; now, following in similar fashionable footsteps as Legally Blonde and Heathers, Mean Girls has found second life as a stage musical, with a world premiere set in Washington, D.C. this October.
Fey began working on a stage adaptation with her husband, 30 Rock composer Jeff Richmond, around five years ago, tuning in to the movie’s musicality after first noticing its surprising staying power. “It came about years later, after seeing the stickiness that the movie had, and the fact that it’s always on TBS and how it sort of wormed its way into everyday speech more than any of us expected,” says the Emmy winner. “It was probably my husband, Jeff, who said, ‘You know what? This could work as a musical.’ And I trusted him to know that, having that background.” (Richmond studied musical theatre at Kent State; Fey, drama at the University of Virginia.)
Fast-forward to 2017, and Mean Girls is set to arrive at D.C.’s National Theatre on Oct. 31 for a try-out run before graduating to Broadway. Fey is adapting her script for the stage, with Richmond writing the score alongside lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) and director Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) helming the production. The assembled ensemble boasts a handful of rising theater talents, including Erika Henningsen as former homeschooler-turned-naïve high schooler Cady Heron, Kyle Selig as her jock crush Aaron Samuels, and Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson as Cady’s friendly guides, Janis and Damian. Fey admits, “Seeing people coming in to audition and sitting in the room like I’m Debra Messing’s character from Smash was thrilling to me.”
The Mean Girls themselves are a trio of Broadway veterans cast to play the three tormenting Plastics who sit atop the animalistic high school food chain: Taylor Louderman (playing leader Regina George, pictured center in the image below), Kate Rockwell (on the left, as doltish Karen Smith), and Ashley Park (right, as neurotic Gretchen Wieners, whose father invented Toaster Strudel).
Fey gushes, “Taylor Louderman not only has this giant voice and great comic timing, but she instinctively understood the idea of Regina George, that there’s power in making people come to you. She knows exactly when to play things really small, and there’s so much power in it, and I think she’s at times so wonderfully scary but so funny. Kate Rockwell so quickly found the zone of the sweetness that’s at the core of Karen. And Ashley has this incredible, beautiful voice, but also this nice timing and this fragility of Gretchen, because Gretchen’s, like…just barely hanging on to her status and her sanity.”
Even the writer was surprised by the revelations the actresses managed to bring to the familiar characters and to her screenplay. “It’s similar to the experience I had with the movie, where you watch someone like Rachel McAdams and you think, ‘Oh, she made this. She’s such a great talent that she’s actually making this more than is on the page,’” says Fey. “When you have great actors, like we do now with these young women, they bring more to it than you even imagined. And sometimes with the writing process, too, before we even got to the actors, I would be with Jeff and Nell and we’d be breaking through the story and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, guys, I’m sorry, we’re hitting a part of the screenplay that’s real flawed.” She laughs: “‘I apologize, it was my first screenplay.’”
Working with Richmond and Benjamin to re-examine and expand on the story she had first whipped up in the early 2000s, Fey decided to first revisit her original source material: Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes, a self-help book for worried parents and their malleable teenage daughters. “I tried to remember to stay at the core humanity of it, which is the behavior that comes out of all of us sometimes out of jealousy or fear,” she explains. “The great thing about music is it lets you get in people’s heads and inside their emotional lives in a way that you can do with a tight close-up in movies, but it’s so much bigger and warmer [in a musical]. I think fans will hopefully find that this has the DNA of the movie and is true to the spirit of it, but is also opened up in a lot of ways.”
No, there’s no song called “Fetch” (“Hopefully ticket sales don’t plummet,” Fey jokes), but the writer promises that all of the show’s women are “nicely served” with new material; on the day EW speaks with her, her standouts du jour are a song for Weed wherein Janis “gets to tear it up and also kind of breaks your heart” and a juicy extended revenge sequence in act two for Regina. As a whole, she says Richmond’s “epic” score is the mark of a personal and professional dream come true: “He’s a genius. I feel like all the music in our show is very catchy — like, I feel like you will walk out humming several songs. We know from the 30 Rock theme and the Kimmy Schmidt theme that he has that ability, and at the same time, he’s a great collaborator with Nell. As the book writer, I feel like I’m there to help steer, but those guys are really pulling the plow. The songs are what make the show. I cannot wait for people to hear them and to understand the person that I’ve been living with for all this time.” OK, you can sit with us.