Review: ‘Mean Girls’ Sets the Perils of Being Popular to Song


Yet they rarely capture either the tone or the time of being a certain age in a certain era. A couple of songs tip their caps to Katy Perry/Pink-style ballads of empowerment (“It Roars,” “Fearless”), but they lack the energizing pop snap you long for.

A rap number, for a party sequence, is embarrassing, and not only because it’s intended to be. By the end, when the feuding students have learned the errors of their divergent ways, high-volume hymns of uplift have taken over. Only an occasional number — like “What’s Wrong With Me?,” a cri de coeur of insecurity, affectingly performed by Ashley Park — offers essential insights into character or truly propels the plot.

These songs are why the show weighs in at two and a half hours, as opposed to the movie’s zippy 97 minutes. And often when I sensed that a character was feeling a song coming on, a grumpy voice in me murmured, “Oh, I wish you wouldn’t.”

As long as they’re talking, the leading students of “Mean Girls” exude an idiosyncratic, carefully exaggerated comic charm. You have, on the one hand, the designer-garbed despots of the title: Ms. Louderman’s Regina, Ms. Park’s terminally insecure Gretchen and Kate Rockwell’s terminally stupid Karen.

On the other, there are the “Freaks and Geeks” misfits: Grey Henson’s “almost too gay to function” Damian and Barrett Wilbert Weed’s deadpan goth-girl Janis. Kerry Butler is very funny as a variety of grown-ups (including parts portrayed by Ms. Fey and Amy Poehler in the film).

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Ms. Henningsen, left, with Kerry Butler, who is very funny portraying a variety of the show’s grown-ups.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Ms. Henningsen’s Cady, the new girl (she was home-schooled in Kenya by her parents), is less specifically defined, but she has plenty of presence. Her radiant, confused blankness effectively summons memories of being young, unformed and desperate to be liked.

The show itself suffers from a similar indecisiveness, especially in its structure. It employs two separate, fitfully used framing perspectives — that of Damian and Janis as droll narrators and commentators on the action, and of Cady, who grew up in the wilds of Kenya, and sometimes observes her fellow students as if they were zoological specimens. At some point, a choice between these two should have been made.

As he demonstrated in “The Book of Mormon” and “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Mr. Nicholaw specializes in spoof choreography that both celebrates and satirizes Broadway dance conventions. It’s an approach that feels only intermittently appropriate here.

He does an amusing, if underdeveloped, riff on “The Lion King” and borrows from “Mormon” for the production’s showstopper, a tap sequence called, uh, “Stop.” The wittiest musical moments include a Halloween-party number in which young women defend tarty costumes as emblems of feminist independence.

And I have to admit I had a great time whenever Ms. Louderman’s Regina strutted her calculating, vampy stuff in songs of malicious intent. Not that I would ever root for the dastardly Regina, with her plastic values and vicious whims. On the other hand, there’s a reason the show is called “Mean Girls.”

They’re the next-door versions of those cosmetically perfect pop and movie stars whose public vanities and follies we savor with such glee. Ms. Fey is an ace student of this universal prurience. She’s also smart enough to let us wallow in and renounce it at the same time.

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Finding New Meaning in ‘Mean Girls’


“We ripped the show completely apart from D.C.,” Mr. Nicholaw said.

Early on a snowy evening in the second week of previews, they straggled into a steakhouse down the block from the theater, ordered coffee like the night owls that they are and talked about bringing “Mean Girls” to Broadway. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

What are the pitfalls in adapting from screen to stage?

CASEY NICHOLAW The biggest mistake is when you’re like, “We have to give the fans everything they want.” The fact that Tina didn’t want to do that was a huge relief to me. All of us inherently know what’s theatrical and what needs to be onstage.

JEFF RICHMOND The biggest laugh lines are not the ones from the movie.

TINA FEY Which makes sense, because laughs are usually generated by some element of surprise. It’s hard to get a laugh on something people know is coming.

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Ms. Fey as Ms. Norbury and Lindsay Lohan as Cady in the 2004 film “Mean Girls.”

Credit
Michael Gibson/Paramount Pictures

NELL BENJAMIN There are some people who are like, “Is there going to be a song called ‘Fetch’?” But if you think it through, how long do you want to sit in a song that’s based on one really good joke?

RICHMOND We had a ridiculous idea for a moment where the entire curtain call was going to be a medley of the songs you thought would be in it, all the iconic moments. Like “Fetch” and “On Wednesdays We Wear Pink” and — what’s the one about sluts?

FEY, NICHOLAW, BENJAMIN “Boo, You Whore.”

How do you make a musical that pits girls against girls at a time when the culture is more excited about female unity than we’ve ever seen?

FEY It is interesting. Since the film, we have ostensibly more female unity. But we also have trouble, right? We have white feminism and intersectional feminism. We have women not believing women. But it also does feel like the message of the show has expanded beyond just relational aggression among females, and it’s sort of about relational aggression, which has metastasized in many ways.

BENJAMIN It’s not just girls being mean to girls. It’s whoever’s on top thinking it’s O.K. to push downhill.

Right now, people are deeply impressed with the youth of America. Does that impact the show?

FEY It does. We talk about it. We have a new song at the top of the second act called “Stop.” It’s sort of a comedic song about impulse control, and Nell and I are both so mindful about making sure that it’s not judging just girls for the choices they make. In some ways, it makes sense that our heroine by the end of the show is living her authentic life and being her best self — that she is teaching us.

The musical feels kinder than the movie.

FEY I think that partly is the form, because once you hear people sing, then you’re in their hearts. I always felt empathy for Gretchen in the movie and for Cady, for all of them. But I think it’s because of music.

NICHOLAW It sweetens everything up whether you want it to or not.

BENJAMIN I can’t not like a person I’m going to write a song for.

NICHOLAW We try to make sure that we undercut the sweet as much as we can.

BENJAMIN And sneak the message in.

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Finding her place in the high school pecking order: Ms. Henningsen, center, as Cady,

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Does having kids, maybe daughters in particular, affect your writing at all?

FEY When I first got Rosalind to license the book to us, I sort of promised her that we would honor the intention, which was to be helpful. We’ve carried that through.

BENJAMIN At 5, my daughter is already not on board for lectures. I have a lot that I want to say to her, but I cannot lecture her. In that respect it’s probably improved my writing, because I’m like, how am I going to work around a 5-year-old’s defenses? It better be funny.

I wasn’t thinking of the messaging so much as the tenderness of the show. It made me wonder if you’re writing more tenderly.

RICHMOND I think maybe.

FEY A moment of the show that has finally come to work, something that we struggled with, was the way we use Mrs. George — just wanting to represent a mother and acknowledge that grown women are judgmental of each other, too, and that we as the audience look at this character in the first act like: Oh, she’s a clown. And just wanting to find a way to empathize with her. That was important to me especially, and that is, yes, probably because I am a mother now, and when I wrote the movie I was not.

There’s a poster outside the theater with photos of your little awkward-slash-adorable adolescent selves. Nerds are very dear to the show’s heart, it seems.

FEY It’s brought me so much joy, how much audiences have responded to the mathletes segment. I think embracing nerdery is what Cady does in a way. She embraces a part of herself that is not perceived to be cool. That’s at the core of the story.

RICHMOND Rooting for the underdogs.

FEY With the exception of Regina, every other character believes themselves to be an underdog in some way.

NICHOLAW Everyone can relate to that, especially in high school. How I coped was doing musicals. I was a gay kid that couldn’t come out because it was 1979, and I didn’t fit in anywhere and I didn’t like sports and I was called all kinds of things. So I found theater, and I found where I did belong.

Damian is like a valentine to every drama nerd who ever was.

RICHMOND Yeah. There’s this meta thing going on, too, because in the movie, you don’t get to see Damian actually in that world. You know he cares about it, but now you see the Damian within a musical theater structure who loves musical theater.

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Grey Henson, center, as Damian Hubbard in the “Mean Girls” musical.

Credit
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

BENJAMIN And makes it happen wherever he goes.

What difference to your writing comes from having the audience in the room with you?

FEY It’s super helpful. You can take your own sense of humor as a guide for only so long, and then you’ve got to get it up in front of an audience. This is so much more alive, to have the chance every night to adjust things.

RICHMOND It’s also so much more rewarding. When you’re doing television, you don’t see the people who are enjoying your thing. I find myself spending so much time watching people in the audience.

NICHOLAW I spend a lot of time deciding if I’m going to tell that person to stop crinkling their wrapper.

RICHMOND That’s why TV is better.

Tina, you’re the Broadway newbie. After “Mean Girls,” will theater see more of you?

FEY I would love to. Maybe we have to come up with something wholly original. But this process has been a joy. I know enough, just peripherally, to know that it could have been a bad arranged marriage, so I feel really very lucky.

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