NEW YORK – From its inception, “Mean Girls” has always been feminist.
Tina Fey’s beloved teen comedy, an adaptation of Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” became a cult classic when it was released in 2004 and hilariously yet subtly moralized the dangers of women not supporting one another.
The musical adaptation of “Mean Girls” opened April 8 on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre, and while the characters — and fan-favorites jokes about Glenn Coco and Kälteen bars — carry over from the original movie, the feminist themes are more clearly articulated.
“I think that’s a way that they’ve taken the movie from 2004 to now,” said Erika Henningsen, who plays the musical’s central role of Cady Heron.
There’s the overtly girl-power dialogue and songs from math teacher Ms. Norbury and subversive best friend Janis Sarkisian (a name change from the movie’s Janis Ian). There’s also a surprising moment from the air-headed Karen Smith about teaching young boys not to disseminate racy photos their female peers send to them, and a climactic speech from Regina George, the queen bee of the Plastics clique, about how women don’t need to apologize for being powerful.
“There’s a [new] wonderful scene in the musical where Regina tells Cady, ‘You don’t have to apologize for being a bad—. You have to apologize when you tear somebody else down because of it. But you should never apologize for your worth and your strength,'” Henningsen said. “And that’s sort of been the new development of Tina’s message, of the show’s message for today.”
Fey shepherded her original “Mean Girls” script to the stage, writing the musical’s book, with her husband, Jeff Richmond (“30 Rock,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), writing the music and Tony winner Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon,” “Spamalot”) directing and choreographing. She also tapped lyricist Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde”) and old boss Lorne Michaels (“Saturday Night Live”) for production.
One thing that none of the musical’s braintrust could’ve anticipated was that “Mean Girls” would enter previews at the same time sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein would begin to emerge and transform the social climate.
Now, in the context of the Me Too movement, which has swept the nation in the short months since the “Mean Girls”’ Washington, D.C., pre-Broadway run in October, the musical has an added meaning that furthers the original movie’s message of sisterhood.
“I feel like, in just the last couple of months, this story has snowballed and gained steam and it’s been exciting to be a part of a project that adds a positive message to that fire,” Henningsen said.
“At the very end of this show, there’s a moment where all six of the leading ladies are at the edge of the stage. And that doesn’t happen in a musical very often, where you identify with six different females and you know them, they’re not just ancillary characters. And the whole idea of that [scene] was that especially now, women are stronger together.”
The 25-year-old actress, who made her Broadway debut as the youngest Fantine in “Les Miserables” history, points to the movie’s themes of women supporting women as a central aspect of both the new Mean Girls musical and Hollywood’s changing climate.
“The less that we tear one another down and the less we undermine one another, the more that we can move forward and accomplish,” she says. “There’s this idea that, when we rob a woman of her individuality or her identity, it only makes it OK for men, or for people in positions of power, to do the same.”
And, save for a topical joke or two about Russian hackers and #complicit crooks, the musical stays subtle with its political messaging, keeping its focus on the evolution of its female characters. “The nice thing is that [‘Mean Girls’] drives that message home in such a subtle way and in a positive way. There’s no bashing of other people. There’s just that clear message that Cady [recognizes], that, ‘I have the choice to be kind to somebody. If I have the option to treat somebody with dignity and respect, it’s just easier and so much more effective for our female population as a whole to choose that route.’”
Maeve McDermott, USATODAY