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  1. Arts & Entertainment
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  5. Stage

‘Mean Girls the Musical’ at the Straz revisits a cult classic

The musical based on the 2004 movie written by Tina Fey and composed by her husband, Jeff Richmond, debuted on Broadway in 2018.
Danielle Wade, Megan Masako Haley, Mariah Rose Faith and Jonalyn Saxer in the nationally touring company of Mean Girls the Musical, coming to the Straz Center Feb. 18-23. [Courtesy of Joan Marcus]

Mean Girls’ immense cultural influence remains embedded in the current zeitgeist. Tina Fey’s sharp, witty movie has endured through the rise of social media, with scenes from the film becoming GIFs and memes still in heavy rotation.

And it’s a family affair. Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, composed the music for Mean Girls the Musical, the Broadway stage adaptation of the movie. Now, obsessed fans of Mean Girls have a chance to revisit the plot in a whole new way when it opens Feb. 18 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

"Mean Girls the Musical" creative team, director Casey Nicholaw, writer Tina Fey, composer Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin. The musical comes to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 18-23, 2020. [Courtesy of Jenny Anderson]

Fey wrote the movie based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 self-help book, Queen Bees and Wannabees. Set in a high school in Illinois, it follows Cady (pronounced like Katie) Heron, the new girl who has just moved from Africa. While trying to adjust, she encounters the Plastics, a catty, three-girl clique ruled by Regina George, who everyone adores and fears. Except for Janis and Damian, who befriend Cady and launch a plan to take Regina down.

Megan Masako Haley, Mariah Rose Faith, Jonalyn Saxer, Danielle Wade and the national touring company of "Mean Girls the Musical," which comes to the Straz Center for the Performing Art Feb. 18-23. [Courtesy of Joan Marcus]

Since its Broadway debut in 2018, Mean Girls the Musical has been nominated for numerous Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. It was directed by Casey Nicholaw, who also directed The Book of Mormon, and Nell Benjamin wrote the lyrics.

Richmond also worked on Fey’s 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. He was music director for Saturday Night Live while Fey worked on the show. They met at the Second City in Chicago in the mid-'90s. We caught up with him to talk about the musical.

Why turn Mean Girls into a musical?

Tina and I are theater people. After college, we went first into theater, even though it was comedic theater. It was the Second City in Chicago. You were still in front of a live audience every night. So I think that’s always just been in our bones. At some point, while we were so busy working at SNL, then later on 30 Rock, we thought, one of these days, we’ve got to go back and do a musical. And we knew that the simplest one that we have the rights to and had an idea of how to pursue it was Mean Girls.

How did you approach writing the music?

When we first started to write it, we brought in Nell Benjamin, who was a lyricist from Legally Blonde the Musical. She brought in a certain amount of fun and teenage language, and she was very good at catching up with Tina. So when we first were approaching songs, we kind of knew what we didn’t want to do was try and build a pop musical. We didn’t want to chase that Broadway pop sound; we wanted to be a little more eclectic. And we felt that the reason we wanted to do that was it’s more fun for myself, coming from a world of writing a lot of different styles. And also we felt that it spoke more honestly to the way characters are and people are in high school. They’re not just from a pop world. We want to bring in different styles based on characters. Like Damian gets big show tunes and production numbers, because his life is a production number.

What kind of sound did you give the Plastics?

My first instinct was to question what Regina was going to sound like and when were we first going to hear her sing, because we’re waiting for her to sing. We wanted something powerful, but something different. It ended up becoming kind of James Bond villain, all this kind of 1960s retro, and yet we’re trying to freshen it up with today’s take on that. She is a Bond villain and so her songs represented that idea.

For Karen, she’s simple and sweet and twinkly, and so she sings a tiny little ditty that doesn’t have much weight on it. And we gave her a big, sexy dance number because we would want her to do that.

Gretchen is a little more complex. She has so many different shades within her character because she is this kind of broken girl who will do anything to stay within Regina’s power. She’s very representative of a lot of people, male and female, always trying to find their way and always stay in the light of a powerful person. So she sings a song called What’s Wrong With Me, which is this sweet little waltz. It’s very simple, but it feels like somebody that’s a little bit broken and questioning themselves.

Since the movie came out in 2004, the rise of social media and cellphones has taken bullying to a whole new level. How did you update the script to reflect that?

Yeah, we were trying to incorporate that without it overtaking what the show was about. We didn’t feel like the whole show had to hang upon social media, it’s just a part of it. And we also want to be sure that we retained the Burn Book on some level. But we wanted to tip our hat to, this is current, this is how kids deal with each other and weaponize the tool they have at hand.

Are a lot of teenagers coming to the show?

Yeah, in New York, very much. And there are also a lot of moms bringing daughters, parents with kids. And that’s actually one of the more exciting things about creating something that you feel like, oh, you can bring your family. You’re going to love it on one level, they’re going to love it on another level. And there are plenty of moments to enjoy it on the same plane as well.

And there are plans for Mean Girls the Musical to be turned into a movie, right?

That is correct. It’s in the works; the writing process has begun.

It brings to mind a bit on 30 Rock, when Liz gives Jenna a fake award for Best Actress for the movie based on a musical based on a movie.

Yeah, we are just doing what we thought was a joke 10 years ago.

IF YOU GO

Mean Girls the Musical opens Feb. 18 and runs through Feb. 23. $51 and up. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. strazcenter.org.

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