There are movies that feel like unlikely inspirations for musicals, but “Mean Girls” isn’t one of them.
With its quippy humor and larger-than-life characters, the iconic and much-quoted 2004 teen comedy about high school hierarchy and the tyranny of the social elite lends itself well to the song-and-dance treatment.
Now finally hitting San Francisco on tour, the hit Broadway musical of “Mean Girls” boasts a book by “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” veteran Tina Fey, who costarred in the movie and wrote its screenplay, loosely inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s nonfiction parental advice book “Queen Bees and Wannabes.”
Fey is a longtime musical theater fan, but this was her first experience actually writing a stage musical. And some adjustments were in order.
“So many jokes in the original film play in the voiceover or in a small facial reaction,” Fey says. “What kinds of jokes (for the stage version) can still be true to the characters but play to the back of a large house? I had studied playwriting in school but had written for TV for so long, and I’d worked at ‘SNL’ where it’s for the TV lens, but also there’s a live audience in the house that it has to work for too. So that was a fun challenge.”
The music is by Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband, who was also the composer for “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and the former music director of “Saturday Night Live.” The lyrics are by Nell Benjamin, who co-wrote both the music and lyrics for the 2007 musical “Legally Blonde” with her husband, Laurence O’Keefe.
Richmond got his college degree in musical theater and had written a few musicals before he broke into TV, such as a werewolf comedy titled “Lobo a Go-Go,” but never on this scale.
“All these other musicals that I’d written were written fast, put up fast,” Richmond recalls. “That coupled with all the years of writing with Tina and for ‘SNL,’ working with comedy writers and writing for TV and film, the idea that writing a musical to try to get it to Broadway was going to take five years at the earliest sounded insane. We just couldn’t comprehend it. But the truth is, it takes that long.”
One of the most fundamental questions was what the musical world of this play should sound like.
“When we started, I kept thinking, ‘We’re doing this musical and it’s about teenage girls in high school. This has got to feel like Taylor Swift or stuff that’s on the radio,’” Richmond recalls. “And when Nell and I actually first started trying to find out what kind of songs felt right as we lined them up with different characters, it turned into a very eclectic mix of styles, because each one of the characters inhabited a certain kind of personality or world reference that informed what their songs would be like.”
Fey found that the characters that she created transformed slightly just by expressing their inner worlds in song.
“When characters sing, they get into their heart a little bit more,” Fey says.
She cites Gretchen Wieners, one of the sidekicks of queen-bee mean girl Regina George.
“Gretchen has this song called ‘What’s Wrong with Me?’ that is built out of the core neuroses that you see in Gretchen in the movie but going deeper on it, and it’s just a very sweet, heartbreaking song,” Fey says. “People feel very connected to Gretchen because of how vulnerable she is in that moment.”
“Mean Girls” premiered in 2017 at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., on its way to a Broadway opening in the spring of 2018. It ran on Broadway until all the theaters shut down for COVID in March 2020. The musical was nominated for 12 Tony Awards, and Fey won Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for best book of a musical.
When the National Tour began in 2019, the creative team took the opportunity to do another round of fine-tuning.
“We had actually taken the tour changes and implemented them on Broadway,” Fey says. “So this version of the show that’s out and about is our ideal version. It’s the version that would have continued to run on Broadway if the pandemic had not come.”
Now they’re working on “Mean Girls” again, re-adapting the stage musical into a movie.
“We start shooting in March, and that has been also a delightful process to try to take this musical and have it still be fun and surprising and not an exact replica in any way of the stage,” Fey says. “It’s going to be much more intimate version of it.”
Fey might never have thought that she’d keep coming back to “Mean Girls,” but she’s enjoyed each step of the way.
“I’ve joked that this is my Marvel Universe,” Fey says. “It continues to grow. This spring will be the first time I think that we’ll also start to see high school productions of the show, which I am beyond excited for. Having done high school theater and been a drama teacher, just to know we’re handing you a show that has five good parts for girls and a gay boy who’s allowed to be gay, I feel like that’s going to be exciting for youth theater.”
Contact Sam Hurwitt at [email protected], and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
Book by Tina Fey, music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin; based on the 2004 Paramount Pictures film; presented by BroadwaySF
When: Jan. 31-Feb. 26
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco
Tickets: $66.50-$174.50 (subject to change); www.broadwaysf.com
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