The much-anticipated musical just opened on Broadway with much fanfare, but it doesn’t really live up to the hype. Still, it can be fun for big fans.
Mean Girls is the definitive movie of the Millennial generation – it’s impossible to carry on a conversation with us and not hear a quote from the movie, and the movie’s ten-year anniversary in 2014 was celebrated with the enthusiasm typically reserved for countries’ centennials and monarchs’ jubilees. As Broadway producers plunder film catalogs (and their music collections) looking for material, it was only a question of when, not if, Mean Girls would become a musical.
The name “Mean Girls” is enough to pack the August Wilson Theater to capacity. The show will run for at least a few years, regardless of reviews or potential Tony Awards (which Mean Girls may do well with, given the weakness of the current Broadway season). So the question is whether you should fight tooth and nail to get tickets, so just let this one pass you by.
On paper, the musical is perfect. Tina Fey wrote the book. Nell Benjamin, who crafted the music for the enormously successful Legally Blonde musical, wrote the lyrics. The cast would feature some beloved actresses like Barrett Wilbert Weed (bare the musical, Heathers) and Kerry Butler (Catch Me If You Can, Hairspray) alongside promising newcomers. Surely, the musical would be a triumph, worthy of its cinematic predecessor and the musical’s surprisingly high ticket prices?
Not so much. The musical is done in chiefly by one thing: nepotism. Because alongside the impressive pedigree of the creative team listed above, the score is composed by Jeff Richmond, whose primary qualification for the job comes from being Tina Fey’s husband. Richmond’s score is so agonizingly dull, it drags down the entire show. No amount of cleverness in Benjamin’s lyrics, and no level of commitment by a game cast, can save the musical numbers from sounding like elevator music. Consequently, every time a song started, I resigned myself to enduring it to get to the next witty bits of dialogue at the other end.
That’s the crux of why this musical both works and doesn’t: it merely serves as a vehicle to deliver highlights from the movie, and adds absolutely nothing to elevate its source material. The pink-clad audience spent most of the musical’s runtime seemingly waiting for recognizable lines from the movie, each of which received thunderous applause. Which begs the same question that plagued the live-action Beauty and the Beast film: if the only good parts are those copied verbatim from the original movie, why not just stay home and watch the movie?
Other than a timely joke about Russian interference, I’d be hard-pressed to recall a single original bit of dialogue from the show. As for the songs, the only ones that stuck with me are solo numbers for Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell), purely because of how over-the-top the performances were. In fact, Park and Rockwell pretty much steal the show from Regina George (Taylor Louderman), who is very good at the comedic moments, but just doesn’t capture the delicious villainy that Rachel McAdams had in the film (or that Jessica Keenan Wynn brought as the “mythic bitch” in Heathers).
It’s a problem consistent in the show: the sidekicks are far more compelling than the main characters. Erika Henningsen is fine as Cady Heron, but the true standouts are Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janice Ian and Grey Henson as Damian (who are the narrators here, instead of Cady). Henson, in particular, steals the show every time he’s on stage.
Kerry Butler (who plays all the adult women) would steal the show if given half a chance, but is completely underutilized. As Regina’s mother, she shares half a song with Gretchen; as Mrs. Norbury, she’s barely a presence in the show. The best movie-to-musical adaptations take the opportunity to add depth to characters – consider School of Rock, which fleshed out all the kids to great effect. Mrs. Norbury should have had at least one big musical number, preferably bursting with mathematical puns.
The musical half-heartedly tries to include a few of-the-moment topics to make it more relevant to today’s audiences, and these all fall completely flat. Once every half hour, the musical remembers that social media is now a thing, and includes it as a plot point. This doesn’t work at all – social media is something pervasive that should be informing the whole story, otherwise the show would have done well to remain a period piece from 2004, rather as Heathers did in 1989. (I keep referencing Heathers because it was the Mean Girls of the prior generation, and one of the best movie-to-musical adaptations of our time; the comparisons are inevitable.)
Mean Girls occasionally shoe-horns in asides about how men suck and they’re the real villains here… which seems to completely undercut the focus on female-to-female relationships that served the film so well. Again, were this adequately explored, it could be an interesting take on the story, but it feels disingenuous as an afterthought tailored to the #MeToo era. The last addition of note is a subplot about Aaron Samuels getting kicked out of the school because he’s in a different district… and there’s no discernible point to this, but there it is.
It should be noted that, despite the criticism I levy against the show, I still enjoyed myself at the show. It’s Mean Girls, it’d be very hard to turn it into something unenjoyable. Hearing the iconic lines that are so much a part of our pop culture lexicon does offer a thrill: Glen Coco and the girl with lots of feelings are as hilarious as they were in 2004. (Other iconic lines bizarrely didn’t make the cut: there’s nothing about Karen’s ESPN, and the exclusion of “Boo you whore!” is criminal.) So if you want to see a show and you like Mean Girls, you may as well see it. But there’s no urgent reason to see it when one can just revisit the movie.
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