How Tina Fey, Jeff Richmond and an A-list team make a ‘Mean Girls’ musical happen
Opening night of the much-anticipated Chicago run of “Mean Girls” promises to be so fetch as the critically acclaimed production — set in the Chicago suburbs — comes home on Christmas Day, which also happens to be a Wednesday (so, wear pink).
“In some ways I think it was booked that way as a little gift to me. I really love that we are in Chicago over the holidays,” says Tina Fey, the actress and nine-time Emmy Award-winning writer behind the 2004 “Mean Girls” comedic movie hit, who adapted the screenplay into the theatrical book. “I feel like the show in many ways belongs to Chicago because of where it’s set and because I feel such a close association to the city with the five years I lived there and the great comedy community that exists.”
Fey, originally from Pennsylvania, moved in the ’90s to Chicago, where she got her break in comedy — first at the ImprovOlympic and then moving over to Second City, which became the precursor to her long stints on “Saturday Night Live” and its mock spinoff “30 Rock.” At the same time Fey was writing and acting in sketches, she was also working at Evanston’s McGaw YMCA, and the experience inspired her to set “Mean Girls” in the town, where the protagonist Cady Heron moves after her anthropologist parents uproot the family from Africa.
The story quickly evolves into a study in human nature as Heron is introduced to the inner workings of suburban American high schools, bookmarked by the “outcasts” Janis and Damian, and the A-list clique known as The Plastics led by the charming yet villainous Regina George and her minions, Gretchen and Karen. As the drama unfolds, Cady realizes the downfall that can follow the hunt for popularity.
Fey says the fictional setting of “Mean Girls” in a North Shore High School is not based on any one Chicago-area institute in particular, taking a nod from one of her favorite moviemakers. “I grew up on John Hughes movies, and those northern suburbs to me are America. That’s just where you set a movie,” she jokes. “That’s where America’s only high schools are.”
Running through Jan. 26 at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, the “Mean Girls” tour follows a strong run on Broadway and is produced by heavy hitters Lorne Michaels, Stuart Thompson, Sonia Friedman and Paramount Pictures. In addition to Fey’s book, the production features Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw as well as lyrics from two-time Tony nominee Nell Benjamin and music by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond, who also has worked with her on compositions for “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” The couple met in Chicago when Richmond was a musical director at the iO and Second City at the same time Fey was cutting her teeth in comedy.
“Jeff has this great ability to write music that really sounds like the character singing it,” says Fey, previewing the content in the show. “So Damian sounds much more like traditional musical theater whereas Janis has a rock vibe and then Regina is somewhere between a straight-up diva and a Bond villain.”
Richmond’s favorite song is one that Gretchen sings in the middle of the first act, called “What’s Wrong With Me,” which he says “epitomizes the whole show,” though he adds there’s much to look forward to throughout the production. “We didn’t want to make it overarching just one sound, we knew we wanted a lot of different musical styles that hopefully would add up to a representation of how kids in high school are in different groups: They speak differently and sing differently and the music that comes from their hearts is different as well.”
“Mean Girls” is the first Broadway production the couple has worked on and is “something we always dreamed about doing for sure,” says Richmond, who spent more than five years developing the production with Fey and the creative team.
“Somebody had mentioned years ago that ‘Mean Girls’ seemed like a natural fit for a Broadway show, and we realized it really is true,” he adds. “The characters are very iconic and all represent a particular group of people we identify with. And they’re all in the middle of the most angst-filled years of their lives, so they have all these emotional things they can sing about. It’s a story that is fun and also has heart with a very strong message at the end — all elements that seemed like they would transfer to the stage.”
Fey agrees, adding, “In a lot of ways I think the musical has more emotional depth than the movie, so that was a fun change in switching to this format. You get to really laugh at Gretchen’s jokes but really feel pain for her and also understand why Janis is so angry on a visceral level. It’s exciting to be able to open up the characters that way.” In the future Fey hopes to possibly turn the musical into a film, a quasi-sequel to “Mean Girls,” after turning Paramount down a decade ago on writing a proper one.
Since the original film (starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams as well as Fey’s “SNL” castmates Ana Gasteyer and Amy Poehler) was released in 2004, Fey was keen to update the theatrical storyline with new zingers and adapt it for modern times, including the issues faced by teenagers today.
“The stage show is not a period piece — it does take place today, and social media does exist in the show,” she says. “At the same time I felt strongly that the story really is about the relationships between people, and social media is just a new weapon in the same battle.”
Fey admits she in some ways identifies with her leading lady Cady — “I remember being that person that couldn’t stop obsessing and wanting to talk smack about other people I was jealous of” — and finds relevance in the story for a new generation, even witnessing her own 8-year-old daughter Penelope, who likes to role-play the characters.
“Whether it’s fortunately or unfortunately, I think the story continues to be relevant. And because of social media, this kind of behavior has metastasized with people lashing out and saying something because it makes them feel better in the moment. So I think anyone could take a good lesson from what Cady learns.”
With “Mean Girls” well-established on stage, Richmond and Fey are on to their next project, a comedy for NBC starring Holly Hunter and Ted Danson about Los Angeles city leaders, which will debut in fall 2020. “We don’t mind spending time together — thank God!” jokes Richmond about the key to their long-established working relationship. “We find each other funny, and that’s always worked.”
Fey also has an engagement with another famous former Chicagoan, Oprah Winfrey, in Minneapolis in January as part of the TV queen’s “Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus Tour” in which the two will engage in a candid conversation in front of an audience.
“I’m so excited about that event. Oprah’s show raised me from the ages of 12 to 19. I watched it every single day. And when I was living in Chicago, I remember getting tickets for the Oprah Book Club show with my friends. We were acting like we were going to class, we studied the book and were ready to take a quiz on it,” Fey recalls, also sharing her thoughts on another local institution, The Second City, which turns 60 this month.
“I love that it’s still thriving. There are so many decades and decades of great actors and directors and writers and performers that have come out of Second City,” she says, “and I feel very honored to have been a part of that history.”