It took them 20 years to get here, but Jeff Richmond and his wife, Tina Fey, are finally where they’ve always wanted to be: Broadway.
“We’re theater people who got detoured,” says Richmond. “We come by this honestly.”
The detours took them to “Saturday Night Live” for nearly a decade — Richmond was music director; Fey, head writer and superstar cast member — and “30 Rock” for another seven.
When that sitcom ended in 2013, they decided to give theater a shot.
For first-timers, the results are impressive. Their show, “Mean Girls,” is up for 12 Tonys, including Best Musical. Fey received a nomination for her script, and Richmond for his snappy score (written with lyricist Nell Benjamin). The musical is a box-office dynamo, grossing $1.5 million a week since opening in April.
Richmond and Fey are enjoying the run-up to the June 10 awards show, hitting luncheons and cocktail parties, happily posing for selfies with Tony voters and fans.
“This has been a whole world of fun,” says Richmond. “And we haven’t had to pay for a meal in weeks. We’ve eaten a lot of chicken with salad, but it’s been very, very good chicken.”
Born and raised in Garrettsville, Ohio (“a town Meredith Willson could have written a musical about”), Richmond, whose mother taught tap-dancing, grew up loving musicals.
“The first album I owned was Mary Rodgers’ ‘Once Upon a Mattress,’” he says. “Not The Beatles, but Mary Rodgers. How geeky is that?”
He wrote his first show in high school. It was called “Cowgirl on Broadway.”
“The title kind of lays it out for you,” he says. “A cowgirl ends up on Broadway. I think it’s time for a revival. The first song I ever wrote was called ‘The Hormone Blues,’ which, thankfully, you cannot find on YouTube.”
Richmond studied music theory and composition at Kent State University, spending hours analyzing Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” He soon drifted to the theater department because “the theater students seemed to be having all the fun.” He and some friends then moved to Chicago to open a small theater. He landed his first paying job as in-house pianist at Del Close’s ImprovOlympic Theater, where many future “SNL” cast members got their start.
That’s where, in 1993, he met two up-and-comers — Fey and Amy Poehler.
“I’m the guy sitting there at the piano watching everybody audition, and Tina and Amy were among the very best,” he says. “We started hanging out offstage. Tina always made me laugh. She used to eat a lot of chocolate cake in those days, and she’d black up one of her teeth during conversation. It may be losing something in translation here, but it was very funny and very, very adorable.”
He says Fey fell in love with him because “I was the only one who was getting paid back then, so I could pick up the check.”
Fey moved to New York in 1997 to join the “SNL” writing staff. Richmond arrived a few years later to head up the music department. They married in 2001 and have two daughters.
“Mean Girls” came into their lives by way of Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 advice book, “Queen Bees & Wannabes.”
Fey thought it could be a movie and began writing the screenplay one summer at “a frumpy little shack we rented in a dinky town on Fire Island,” Richmond recalls. “She’d write little scenes every day, and then we’d have some wine or a cocktail and read them. It was, now that I think back on it, an idyllic summer.”
They had a lot of fun writing the musical, too. Fey would come up with a joke or a scene, and then Richmond and Benjamin would shape it into a number.
“The important thing was not to lose Tina’s voice,” says Richmond. “She was very involved in writing the songs.”
What if a song wasn’t quite what she wanted? “Sometimes she’d suggest a number should be a little sweeter, or a little gentler,” Richmond says. “She was always welcome to say that — to my agent.
“That’s how we get things done,” he says with a laugh. “And that’s why our marriage has lasted all these years.”