Above the door of the Second City training center resides wisdom from a noted alumna named Tina Fey. “There are no mistakes,” the stenciled quotation reads, “only possibilities.”
For Fey, whose formidable career exploded at the Chicago comedy theater in the mid-1990s, that famously fearless approach to show business has led her from Second City to “Saturday Night Live!” writer and then star actor, to the movie “Mean Girls” and a hit NBC TV show called “30 Rock” to another hit NBC TV show called “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” to many more movies and cameos and animation voiceovers and American Express ads and Allstate commercials and a best-selling autobiography called “Bossypants” and the Broadway musical version of “Mean Girls,” and well, far too many creative projects for any one human to keep track.
The flood is, of course, ongoing and includes a new fall 2020 project for NBC that, on this very afternoon in New York, is being devised in the offices that Fey and her husband, Jeff Richmond, call their creative home.
The Midtown office suite of Tina Fey, Multimedia Inc., is filled with people. It is the kind of place where a writermight well run into Jon Hamm (or, in Fey’s ironic parlance, “television’s Jon Hamm”) on his way out, having just written something cheeky involving Fey and flatulence on the whiteboard in Fey’s office.
Fey and Richmond — who wrote the score for the 2018 Broadway musical “Mean Girls,” the first national tour of which arrives in Chicago on Christmas Day — share both their personal and professional lives. Both sides of that relationship were born in Chicago. Both sides appear to be thriving.
Fey moved to Chicago in 1992, fresh from the University of Virginia. In her autobiography, she describes arriving in Chicago for the first time, after being driven up from Upper Darby, Penn., on Halloween, and “pulling into Rogers Park with people whipping eggs at my dad’s Pontiac in accordance with the holidays.”
She would stay in Chicago for five years, before moving to New York to take up a writing job at “Saturday Night Live!” Her time in Chicago was, she says, the most important five years of her life.
On arrival in Rogers Park, Fey realized she needed a day job and she wound up working at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston, looking after the front desk during the early morning shift and riding to work on the CTA. She usually ate lunch at Gigio’s pizzeria, a low-cost, thin-crust emporium on Davis Street, known for its can-crushing recycle bin. By night she was improvising at then-ImprovOlympic and taking classes at Second City.
Richmond and Fey met at ImprovOlympic where Richmond was the in-house pianist. Before long, though, Richmond had found his way to Second City, serving as musical director for the e.t.c. company (the director, Ron West, had invited in his old college friend from Kent State University). In 1994, Fey and Richmond started dating. Within a couple of years, Fey had herself moved up through the ranks at Second City and found herself in the mainstage cast of the legendary revue legendary revue “Paradigm Lost,” alongside the likes of Rachel Dratch, Kevin Dorff, Scott Adsit, Jenna Jolovitz and the late, great Jim Zulevic (most of the show would appear in “30 Rock”). Richmond’s career was rising, too.
In 1997, Richmond was tapped to direct a mainstage review, “Promise Keepers, Losers Weepers,” a show with an abnormally long gestation period. With Fey in the cast. Fey, who was by now his girlfriend.
“This was the reason I felt like I had to leave,” Fey says, as her diminutive husband grins in her direction from the other side of a big couch in his wife’s office. “I had such strong improv comedy ethics and I decided this was going to be a real conflict of interest if Jeff was going to be the director. I decided it was time to go and see if Adam McKay would give me a job. That was why I went to ‘Saturday Night Live!’”
“And you were so destined to be fired,” Richmond says.
“You would not have been shy about that,” Fey says.
“I had done it before,” Richmond says.
“This is going really deep into what happened in Chicago.”
“It is the Chicago Tribune. It’s OK.”
Aside from the ongoing gig at Second City, Richmond wrote an array of funny parody musicals around Chicago in the 1990s, continuing through the turn of the millennium, working with then-denizens of the scene like Michael Thomas and Alexandra Billings. His oeuvre began in 1991 with the werewolf musical “Lobo a Gogo” at the Theatre Building (as directed by John Cameron) and, continued through “Hamlet the Musical and Other Great Exploitations” for a spin-off company called Second City Theatricals, championed by the longtime Second City producer (and close friend of the couple), Kelly Leonard. The show, which featured a young actor named Jack McBrayer in the cast, was the first production in Chicago Shakespeare’s new Upstairs Theatre on Navy Pier.
“God,” Richmond says, “it was so easy to do theater in Chicago in those days. Anybody could rent a storefront and show up. The economics were right. The zoning no problem.”
“I would go see anything anywhere,” Fey says. “The Heartland Cafe, The Neo-Futurists. And sometimes it would be, like, really legit, like Laurie Metcalf legit.”
“That was a lot of lives ago.”
“That was a lot of lives ago.”
For a while, the couple commuted back and forth between Chicago and New York. Fey took the opportunity to create a two-person comedy show with Rachel Dratch called Dratch and Fey, calling a Tribune critic more than once to ensure his attendance. But by the summer of 2001, Fey and Richmond were married.
Sept. 11, 2001, happened, disorienting the couple. And shortly thereafter, Richmond got in his car and drove to New York and stayed. “We were on a cruise ship that caught fire. There was anthrax. There was a lot of fragility to life that year,” Richmond says.
Within months, Richmond also was working for “SNL,” alongside his wife, writing “special music.”
Fey’s tenure at “Saturday Night Live” — the characters, the gags, the Weekend Update segment — is, of course, well-documented. “Mean Girls,” the movie, was her first major attempt to forge a subsequent career. It was astonishingly successful.
Fey wrote the screenplay alone, during a summer on Fire Island, after she had read a New York Times article about Rosalind Wiseman, the author of the non-fiction, how-to-survive book about high school, “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” “I thought I had been on SNL for a while and that I should try and branch out,” Fey says. “And I read the book, and I thought, ‘this will be like ‘Stand and Deliver,” and be a movie in which I can star.”
“Mean Girls” — both the movie and the musical — feels like a North Shore story. Clues in the screenplay suggest this North Shore High School is an amalgam of Evanston Township High School (not far from the YMCA where Fey worked and the real school in the town where the movie’s heroine, Cady Heron, lives) and New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, the famed large and affluent public school that serves several North Shore communities. The leafy suburban landscape feels very much au fait with the affluent and urbane towns to Chicago’s north. The scenes at the mall seem indebted to Old Orchard mall in Skokie, then a favorite of north suburban teenagers. This was, of course, no accident.
“I had grown up with all the John Hughes movies,” Fey says. “That was American high school to me. The Chicago suburbs. I was living in New York when I wrote the movie, but it never occurred to me to set it there, any more than it occurred to me to set where I was from. I set it where American high school movies are from.”
With which she had some familiarity.
“I never set foot in either of the actual high schools being as I was a childless adult back then,” she says (Fey and Richmond now have two daughters). “But I knew Evanston and I knew the North Shore.”
“Mean Girls” was released in 2004. It cost some $16 million to make (it was shot in Canada to save money) and grossed $24 million on its opening weekend, thrilling Lorne Michaels, Fey’s employer at “Saturday Night Live!” and by now her movie producer. Fey says it was a good first-movie experience — “they didn’t take it away from me because Lorne is very protective of writers.” Although of course not a musical, the film had a soundtrack featuring music by Pink, Blondie, Peaches and several other artists. “We had a very quirky pop-music score,” Fey says, “really not at all what you would expect from a teen movie.”
But it was not an original score by Richmond.
“Mean Girls,” the musical, opened on Broadway last season and it attempts to find a sweet spot between the era of the movie and the present. “The biggest difference between then and now is the advent of social media,” Fey says. “I didn’t want any of that to take over because I feel the story is about female human behavior at its core. We were lucky because of many of those fashions from the films had already come back around, so we were able to evoke the movie and the 1990s without making it feel like a period piece. We’re true to the movie, but not literally in the 1990s.”
“Mean Girls” has enjoyed a powerful afterlife in all of its media; it has become a cultural artifact known to at least two generations of women, many of whom are mothers and daughters, and such pairings now are familiar sights on Broadway, as likely will be the case in Chicago.
“To my surprise, the movie became a net that seems to catch girls around 13,” Fey says. “Social media, by the way, did not fix anything. It just metastasized all the problems of being a teenage girl.”
Richmond’s involvement was much more extensive in the musical than the movie. “I mean, he was always fully invested as a spouse,” Fey says, “but by the time the musical came along, we had been working together for years.” Richmond is credited with the original score; the lyrics are by Nell Benjamin.
In most ways, Richmond was a non-traditional musical composer, given his improv background. “I think I found in Chicago that there was so much respect for comedy, and I really wanted to be around all of those funny people. So I then wanted to work from that particular background and extend things from there,” he says. “I can listen to and appreciate Stephen Sondheim but I always know that I am listening to Stephen Sondheim and I was trying to work in a different kind of way here, to let the characters really drive the music. I wanted to respond to their voices.”
You could argue that “Mean Girls” is the only Broadway score in history to be written by a composer with a background in improv comedy, as shaped and honed in Chicago.
“It was weird to write it right up until people started to sing and then hand it over to him,” Fey says.
“We’ve been in collaborative situations before,” Richmond says.
“We have,” says Fey. “We have.”