In a recent New York Times interview, the husband-wife team behind “Mean Girls” discussed how their new musical is different from its source material, the 2004 screenplay by Tina Fey.
“The biggest laugh lines are not the ones from the movie,” said composer Jeff Richmond, who makes his Broadway debut with “Mean Girls” after years of executive producing and scoring Fey’s TV hit “30 Rock.”
“Which makes sense,” agreed Fey, also making her Broadway debut, as the new musical’s book writer, “because laughs are usually generated by some element of surprise. It’s hard to get a laugh on something people know is coming.”
Truth be told, the biggest laughs in Fey’s book for “Mean Girls” are lifted directly from her screenplay about a pretty, vapid, backstabbing group of teenage girls, a.k.a. the Plastics, who rule North Shore High. Since those laugh lines of callous reverse feminism were hilarious the first time around, they remain LOL effective on stage in the musical version of “Mean Girls,” which opened Sunday at the August Wilson Theatre.
Beyond the successful recycling of 14-year-old jokes, the other good news about Fey and Richmond’s first joint Broadway effort is that her characters need to sing. The angst, joy and fear on display are big in a very hormonal teenager kind of way. “Mean Girls,” unlike its first cousin “Legally Blonde,” finds the necessary volume to justify breaking into song, whether those songs are about the despair of being an outsider or falling in love with a photo of the Wham!-era George Michael. These are the early traumatic experiences of life that stick in your memory much longer than passing the bar exam or applying for social security.
If only Fey’s springboard of a book had inspired more memorable, distinctive songs. A few hit the mark: “I See Stars” delivers chewable bubblegum and “What’s Wrong With Me?” is a poignant lament from Gretchen, the most insecure of the Plastics. And when the group’s nasty leader, Regina, seeks revenge on her new turncoat friend Cady, “Watch the World Burn” turns up the heat.
What’s odd, considering Richmond’s TV background, is how Broadway derivative much of his score sounds. “Stop,” an ode to banning bad behavior, clearly references “Zip” without ever replicating the sardonic wit of that “Pal Joey” classic.
Richmond, fortunately, avoids the current Broadway trap of having to turn every modest tune into a major anthem. The “Mean Girls” score is nothing if not varied, and who can’t appreciate a musical where Act 1 ends with a parody of the now-ubiquitous female power ballad, appropriately titled “Fearless”?
Where Fey’s recycled one-liners are inspired, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics are rarely more than serviceable, although an improvement on her “Legally Blonde” wordplay.
The show’s most original laughs can be attributed to Casey Nicholaw’s always sharp choreography and direction. He delivers several funny surprises, whether it’s the chorus boys dancing on food trays in the cafeteria or dressing up in drag to fill out the bleachers in the gym when the girls are lectured on their bitchery. And Scott Pask’s deceptively simple set bursts with color and unexpected novelties thanks to Finn Ross and Adam Young’s arresting videos.
Most important, Nicholaw knows how to direct actors for maximum comic effect. Taylor Louderman and Kerry Butler present effective variations on, respectively, Rachel McAdams’ beautiful shrew Regina and Amy Poehler’s 40-going-on-16 mother from the film version.
Where Nicholaw works real magic is with Regina’s two sidekicks, the insecure Gretchen (Lacey Chabert in the film) and the dimwit Karen (Amanda Seyfried in the film). On stage, Ashley Park finds infinite variations to make her doubting Gretchen both amusing and poignant, while Kate Rockwell’s Karen is both dumb and dumber and, ultimately, the funniest character on stage.
As Cady, the teenager who must negotiate American high school politics after years of being home schooled in Kenya, of all places, Erika Henningsen grows into the role after a rough start not entirely of her own making. On that fateful first day at North Shore High, Cady meets her instant best friends: the suspected lesbian Janis, played by Barrett Wilbert Weed, and the very gay Damian, played by Grey Henson, who is every bit as flamboyant as Daniel Franzese in the movie.
The major obstacle for Henningsen is that the Damian character is now the gay guy in a musical, meaning he stills gets to wear pink and act queeny but also sings, taps and knows his show tunes. In Henson’s opening scenes, the show is less “Mean Girls” than “Funny Boy.” Henningsen’s Cady doesn’t really grab our attention until the second act, when she turns herself into a total bitch on the make.
In other ways, there are signs of social progress. In the movie, Janis is handed a boyfriend at the end so we knew she really isn’t a “dyke.” That nugget of homophobia (the boyfriend, not the word “dyke”) has been dropped from the musical. And it’s nice to see that at least two same-sex couples have the guts to invade the Spring Fling at North Shore High.