It’s taken nearly 15 years, but Mean Girls is finally making a Broadway musical happen. After a world premiere in Washington, D.C., last fall, the stage adaptation of Tina Fey’s 2004 classic is bringing the halls of North Shore High to the August Wilson Theatre — where it’s currently in previews ahead of an official opening this Sunday night — with all its requisite queen bees, wannabes, and pink-on-Wednesdays in tow.
Fey — who adapted her screenplay for the stage with songs courtesy of with her husband, 30 Rock composer Jeff Richmond, and Legally Blonde lyricist Nell Benjamin — hemmed closely to the movie’s original premise. Teen Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) moves from Africa to suburban Illinois and must navigate the social hierarchy at her new high school, led by the trio known as the Plastics: ditzy Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell); neurotic, hair-so-big-it’s-full-of-secrets Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park); and the calculating Regina George (Taylor Louderman).
“Nobody on the team expected us to do a performance that we had seen in the movie. And they were very clear about that,” Henningsen tells EW, speaking before the show began previews in New York. “I’m not Lindsay Lohan. I couldn’t even try to do what she did in the movie; we’re just totally different people. And so what was really exciting was being given that framework that was familiar to us, but to have the freedom to bring ourselves to the part.” For her, that meant Cady became more of an active storyteller. “In the movie, you’re seeing the story unfold through Cady’s eyes, and in this musical, she is an instigator of the plot a lot more than she was in the movie — she was sort of responding to things that her friends were telling her, and now you see her take an active role in her life for better or for worse.”
Louderman (Bring It On: The Musical) also dug into what makes Regina tick and why her classmates both fear and worship her. “She wouldn’t be where she was if the whole school didn’t celebrate her,” the actress notes. “Which is an interesting road to go down, because that’s kind of what we do; especially as young people, we do celebrate somebody who often puts us down. And, why does it take a hero like Cady coming in to get everybody fired up enough to change things?”
The musical’s creative team, which also includes The Book of Mormon director Casey Nicholaw, expanded the story everyone knows (and quotes, word for word) not just with catchy tunes, but also a contemporary setting — three-way calling no longer exists, but Snapchat sure does — and that change gives Mean Girls new relevance, particularly at a moment when there’s so much focus on female empowerment. Moving the time period also allowed the musical to incorporate the intricacies (and Burn Book-type tendencies) of social media.
“I’m so glad that they came to that conclusion,” says Barrett Wilbert Weed, who plays the artsy Janis Sarkisian. “They did a bunch of readings of the show — informal readings at Tina and Jeff’s apartment, I think before any of the principal actors were connected with the show — and from what I what I hear, initially they were gonna still have it set in 2005 for a while, and then they came to the conclusion that it would be more helpful for teenagers who were going to see it if we set it, you know, today or next year or five years from now.”
“Its message is a bit stronger than it was in the movie, and I think Tina’s responded to what’s happening right now with this wonderful movement of female power,” says Henningsen. “We’re always told as women, ‘Oh, just be nice, be kind, apologize,’ and in a way that’s true, but you don’t have to apologize for who you are as long as it’s not hurting other people. And I think that’s this next step the show has taken to be really relevant today.” Adds Louderman: “Just that idea [of] empowering young women to speak up when they see somebody who’s abusing their power — I think we hit that note a little bit harder, which is great given what we’re facing in society right now.”
According to the show’s stars, Fey was not hesitant to adapt her script to make sure it shines on stage. “She’s not precious about anything,” says Weed. “If you have a question about any line, she’s always wanting to talk about it, always wanting to make everything the best it can possibly be. When she decides a joke doesn’t work or when she decides a line doesn’t work, she’ll just go away quietly for 10 minutes and come back and have written like seven different options.” Fey is also revisiting the story after having daughters of her own, ages 12 and 6. “[Fey] is writing the book for this musical after having become not only a wife but a mom of two daughters,” notes Weed, “And I think there’s a bigger want from her to make her the world like an easier place for her daughters. … There’s a really full heart to the show, and there was absolutely a full heart in the movie too, but there’s a mom’s heart now.”
But in the midst of those changes, theatergoers can still look forward to the Mean Girls moments you’d hope to see when you sit down to see the Mean Girls musical. “[Fans] will see their favorite moments re-created, but not verbatim,” explains Henningsen. “Tina and Jeff and Nell made sure to pay homage to the screenplay, because it’s flawless, but then created something that’s a bit more right for the stage — and if you have seen the movie, you’ll be surprised by the new twists and turns.” And we think that’s pretty grool.