How Tina Fey turned ‘Mean Girls’ into a pop culture phenomenon
When Tina Fey’s high school cult classic film “Mean Girls” premiered in 2004, the Emmy Award-winning creator of “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” remembers sneaking into the back of a theater to gauge the audience reaction. At first, she wondered why the laughter in a theater packed with teenage girls seemed subdued. Did they not think it was funny? “But as the movie went on, I realized it was like they were watching a drama,” she recalls during a recent interview at a Manhattan television studio. “They were watching so intently because they were pulled into its emotional stakes. I knew then that we were onto something — that the core sociology of the story is a hundred percent true.
“I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but I tried to make a movie that didn’t talk down to girls and that had jokes that they would think were funny,” she says of her first and only screenplay. “So I feel like you get to be a teenager and go, ‘Oh, this is for me! Someone made this for me, not at me.’ ”
The film, starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, and Amanda Seyfried, went on to become a pop culture phenomenon and a touchstone of the high school movie genre, chock-full of sly social commentary, acerbic zingers, and instantly quotable one-liners. But as she set out to translate the story into a stage musical, whose tour touches down at the Citizens Bank Opera House Jan. 28-Feb. 9, Fey didn’t want to make a facsimile of the movie. Instead, she hoped to strike a balance between giving fans the familiar moments they knew and loved while keeping the show fresh and surprising.
“We kind of weighed, like, what moments or lines would fans of the film want to see?” Fey says. “But at the same time, I didn’t want to repeat jokes. It can’t just be your greatest hits. I was happy to bring things back that were motifs that weren’t necessarily huge jokes, like ‘She doesn’t even go here!’ But anything that was a joke-joke, I felt compelled to do differently. Because a joke needs to surprise you to work as a joke. It should be something you don’t see coming.”
For the “Mean Girls” stage adaptation, Fey collaborated with her composer husband Jeff Richmond, lyricist Nell Benjamin, director Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon”), and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels. The show premiered on Broadway in 2018. Since then, it’s become a hit among younger audiences, nabbed 12 Tony nominations, and earned Fey Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards. (On Thursday, the producers of the stage show announced that it would be adapted into a musical film, with Fey writing the screenplay.)
The story centers on a naive high school newbie, Cady Heron, who tries to end the reign of the school’s vicious queen bee, Regina George, by infiltrating her popular-girl clique, the Plastics. Despite the guidance of her outcast friends — goth-girl Janis and snarky, musical theater-loving Damian — Cady loses herself along the way and turns as ruthless as Regina.
Adapting “Mean Girls” to the stage offered its creators a ripe opportunity to flesh out the story and go deeper emotionally. To that end, they wrote breakout moments when characters sing their innermost feelings — whether it’s the insecure mean-girl Gretchen singing her solo lament of fragile self-doubt, “What’s Wrong With Me?,” or betrayed friend Janis belting out her anthem of standing-up-for-yourself and going your own way, “I’d Rather Be Me.”
“Girls at that age have big feelings, and these are definitely big emotions. So they make sense onstage,” says Fey, who’s raising two daughters of her own, ages 14 and 8.
“[Teenagers] have a literal hormonal imbalance,” Fey adds, with a laugh. “And their prefrontal cortex is not fully formed yet. So the low-stakes behaviors can become very high stakes quickly.”
When she first read Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and other Realities of Adolescence,” an analysis of girl-on-girl nastiness and the inspiration for her “Mean Girls” screenplay, what fascinated her was the “truth and the diabolical ingenuity of these behaviors. As bad as it was, you had to kind of step back and be like, wow, this is impressive in its cleverness, the way people mess with each other.”
Growing up in the Philadelphia area, Fey came of age during the peak of the John Hughes era. She loved his high school classics like “Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink,” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and those films influenced “Mean Girls.” “I know many of those movies are problematic now. But for once, that’s not my fault,” she says, with a laugh. “They were great movies in that they wrote those characters not as tropes but as real people. And they were truly funny.”
At the head of the mean-girl class at North Shore High School is Regina, one of those characters you love to hate. Everyone is afraid of her — her devoted followers, sycophantic Gretchen and dim-bulb Karen, her ex-boyfriend (and Cady’s crush) Aaron, even her own mother. Director Nicholaw, Fey says, wanted to amplify the mystique that surrounds Regina. When the Plastics first strut into the cafeteria, the set opens up, the lights shift, and there’s a blast of color. Richmond even wrote a James Bond-esque song for her. “Every night, people cheer and go crazy when they enter,” explains Fey. “Think of every Disney movie — the villains are the best part.”
Still, it doesn’t mean Fey wanted them to be cliches either. “Hopefully by the end of the show, you understand that they’re also human beings who have grown and changed,” she says.
In previous interviews, Fey has admitted to being a bit of a mean girl herself when she was young. She also incorporated her own high school experiences — what she remembers thinking and feeling and aspects of people she knew — into the show. “It made me recognize bad behaviors in myself. It made me realize that everyone, when you’re in the middle of that behavior, you always think you’re in the right. No one goes into it being like, ‘I’m doing great, and I have everything, so I’m going to punch down at people around me.’ Everyone thinks they’re punching up — when that’s not really the case.”
The warm and wry Fey acknowledges that she doesn’t identify with Regina’s “confidence and glamour,” but she connects with the idea that “she feels she’s in the right.”
“People like that, I understand why other people cling to them — because they feel protected by [their] power. And I understand that relationship where you’re like, ‘This friend protects me and then also sometimes hurts me.’ There’s real psychology behind why people allow themselves to be in those friendships.”
Benjamin, the show’s lyricist (she co-wrote the “Legally Blonde” musical with her own composer husband, Laurence O’Keefe), eagerly soaked up any lessons she could from Fey, whom she’s long idolized. “She’s Tina Fey! She doesn’t have to listen to other people’s opinions on what is funny or what is going to work as comedy. But she does!” Benjamin says. “She didn’t just teach me a ton more about comedy than I ever knew, but she also taught me about collaboration and how to express concerns or have a disagreement in a respectful way that gets us all where we want to be.”
Social media was in its infancy when the film came out. Today, it’s only exacerbated teenagers’ insecurities and fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) as well as introduced the dangers of cyberbullying. Fey and company knew that aspect of the culture had to be threaded into the show. It’s also made “Mean Girls” more resonant than ever. “Unfortunately, meanness is everywhere now, and meanness gets you attention, gets you clicks, and seems to be a way to get ahead,” Benjamin says. “So we’re all being rewarded across the board for showing that side.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s a mistake to “take the meanness you get from others and simply roll it back downhill.” For her part, Fey echoes the words of girl-empowering math teacher Ms. Norbury (whom she played in the movie) in summing up the show’s message: “Calling other people stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. Calling someone ugly doesn’t make you any better looking,” she says. “It’s a pointless behavior, and it’s only ultimately toxic to yourself.”