Who knew you could make a Tony-nominated musical from a self-help book for parents?
Tina Fey, that’s who.
“Mean Girls” picked up a leading 12 Tony Award nominations on Tuesday, including one for best musical and another for Fey’s book, which adapts her 2004 movie for the stage. But as “Mean Girls” devotees might recall, the musical’s roots actually go deeper — to Fey’s original inspiration, Rosalind Wiseman’s 2003 nonfiction book, “Queen Bees and Wannabees.”
“Queen Bees” presented a dismaying picture of teen tyrants and friendships poisoned by social hierarchies and stealth competition. For Fey, the book’s depiction of tears and anguish caused by ostracism and frenemy treachery somehow screamed “hit comedy.”
And then it screamed Broadway musical. With music from lyricist Nell Benjamin and composer Jeff Richmond (who is married to Fey), “Mean Girls” opened last month at the August Wilson Theater and tied “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical” for the most Tony nods this year.
The movie starring Lindsay Lohan may have come out nearly 15 years ago, “Queen Bees” may be in its third edition and the rise of social media may have further complicated teen life, but as Wiseman said in a recent interview, girl world hasn’t changed a ton.
These days mean-girl dynamics are called “relational aggression” and “microaggression,” but the story of Regina George and the Plastics still resonates.
“The issues are evergreen” Wiseman said. If you’re a teenage girl, “you’re going to have jealousy and you’re going to feel that you’re inadequate and you’re going to feel self-conscious about the way you look.”
Fey shrewdly turned mean into funny. Spinning angst and turmoil into Broadway song just made sense, said the show’s lyricist.
“High school is an inherently dramatic time,” Benjamin said. “The feelings are larger than life and they take over your body in the same way that in the traditional musical a song takes over your body and you just start singing. It’s actually almost a perfect match for a musical. The harder you feel something inside, the more you want to express yourself, the more chance you have to sing it.”
That sentiment actually jibes with Wiseman’s research. In adolescence, she said, “you’re going through a time when you physically actually feel the pain of social rejection. And you feel like a rush when you are accepted. We all do.
“But young people literally, physiologically feel those feelings. So that’s what makes them, in some ways, act so crazy.”
In the dark ages when Fey’s film first came out, landlines ruled and three-way calling was the latest technological advancement for mean girls. Now all those crazy emotions are busting out and crash-landing on kids’ phones.
The harder you feel something inside, the more you want to express yourself, the more chance you have to sing it.
Benjamin, who wrote the lyrics for “Legally Blonde, the Musical,” said that the rise of social media means that all those dangerous impulses — the urge to stir up trouble — have global reach. “And they have permanent reach,” she said. “We’re given tools that don’t change the basic impulse, but they do magnify the effects.”
Untamed impulses predate smartphones and high school too. Cady Heron (the Lohan character, now played by Erika Henningsen) observes that these instincts harken back to the rules of jungle, back to the predator-prey model. The character had been home-schooled in Africa and observes high school as a scientist and an anthropologist.
In one of the show’s most fun musical numbers, queen bee Regina George (Tony nominee Taylor Louderman) is characterized as the apex predator, “stalking the halls for the thrill of the kill.” As in the movie, where Cady equates the mall to a watering hole in an African veldt, the actors mimic animals. In the song “Roar,” Cady sees unfriendly cliques as a band of baboons. Casey Nicholaw, “The Book of Mormon” and “Something Rotten” director and choreographer who earned his ninth Tony nomination for “Mean Girls,” has the students cross the stage wearing elements of animal costumes.
Still, it was clear that the musical needed to be updated to include social media and the jargon of the day — like “bae.” Book-writer Fey effortlessly incorporated dialogue about screens, texting, sexting, posting, tagging and hashtagging. Even the memorable Mrs. George (Amy Poehler in the movie, Kerry Butler on stage) is now @coolmom. (“Twenty-three hundred followers. Followback,” she blurts.)
The 2004 movie had a plot point predicated on three-way calling, but when you’re watching the musical, Benjamin said, “you don’t think, ‘well, I really miss that three-way calling scene.’” Now, instead of girls ambushing one another on a cordless phone, malice goes viral.
In the musical, when the Plastics perform as “hot elves” in a Christmas show, Regina George’s wardrobe malfunction breaks the internet. During the ensuing feeding frenzy, Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed) pauses the action to tell the audience, “OK, this is probably a good time for us talk about the power of social media.” It’s a laugh line, not a lecture.
Wiseman said that the song “Stop,” which was added after the musical’s early run in Washington, D.C., greatly enhances the production and its message. Damien (the “too gay to function” character, played by Grey Henson in a Tony-nominated turn) sings: “I know it’s hard but try / don’t instantly gratify. Stop. When you send five texts / And you get none back / So you wanna send a sixth one / You gotta stop.”
When he sings, “As right as it might seem, to overshare, troll or meme / that’s just low self-esteem,” the female ensemble sings back, ”We can’t stop!”
Although the musical sourced the “Mean Girls” movie, Benjamin said, “if anything, we went back more to [Wiseman’s] book. …There was a lot of stuff in there that we felt was even more important to reinforce about female friendships.”
Benjamin said that she and Fey wanted to show how women are socialized to see female anger as “dragon lady Medusa scary monster anger … anything but justified.” Benjamin went on to say that “Rosalind’s incredible forensic analysis kept us honest. You know, we didn’t want to do a show that sounded like it was a bunch of adults rappin’ with the kids, lecturing the kids.”
It is exactly this approach that led Wiseman to sign on with Fey in the first place. She had already turned down several offers for movies and TV that she believed would be stale and stereotypical. But Fey got that “the lessons that girls are learning at that age are actually profound.”
Wiseman — who is credited as co-writer of the film — went with Fey because they agreed that the project could and would be “fun and funny but also highlight some of the serious issues that are facing young people.”
From her experience with “Legally Blonde, The Musical,” Benjamin says that many people assume “it’s got pink in it. It’s about girls. It must not be good.” But pink can be profound too.
Fey read “Queen Bees” and zeroed in on a description of the stifling rules of popular girl fashion.
Today it’s in a song about lunchtime factions that’s called “Where Do You Belong?” The lyrics go like this: “Who can tell you what to think / See you here same time tomorrow. On Wednesdays we wear pink!”
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