by Hannah Schmidt
In the past decade, there has been a serious uptick in Hollywood movies being turned into stage musicals. Popular films like Legally Blonde, Heathers, Groundhog Day, Bring it On, and Freaky Friday all have been turned into musicals, many of which have been on Broadway. Even shows like Waitress or Kinky Boots, which are now both long-running Broadway hits, were first films. In fact, most of this upcoming Broadway season is adaptations from the screen, including Spongebob Squarepants, Frozen, and King Kong. Also joining this group is another show set to arrive in Times Square this March: Mean Girls the musical.
For my birthday my mom bought me tickets to go see the new Mean Girls musical in Washington DC before it transfers to New York. While I had enjoyed the movie when I was younger, I will admit I’ve never been a Mean Girls superfan and was less excited about the story as I was seeing my teacher from summer camp who is currently playing Cady. However, I couldn’t help but question how the movie would compare to the musical and if the cult-classic would even work live onstage.
After months of waiting, I finally saw the show in the sold-out National Theatre on November 11. Walking in, I was immediately struck by the amazing set design. This version of Mean Girls is set in 2017, and modern technology is integrated into the show as the set is made up of a screen that plays different videos, gifs, and visuals throughout the show. Once the production began, I was blown away by the sheer energy of the ensemble. Their dancing was dynamic and fun, demonstrating both their high level of training and emotional connection to the movements. Also, the leads had killer voices, both technically trained and passionate. The amazing cast had the audience laughing and smiling throughout the entire show.
By the end of the show I was definitely in love with the extremely talented cast. However, I found the writing of the show to be less than impressive. While the musical did stick to the plot of the movie pretty well, the music was not memorable and didn’t seem to be important to the story. The whole point of songs in a musical is to move the plot forward when the character’s emotions are raised to such a high level that there is no way they can express themselves simply through speaking. Therefore, songs should occur at the most emotionally charged moments in a show and often end up leaving a more memorable impact on the viewer than the dialogue. However, the songs in Mean Girls seemed forced in at random moments that weren’t pivotal or emotionally charged, leaving you with nothing to grasp onto and no connection to the characters. Each song just seemed to be a placeholder to kill time until the characters could shout out the next movie reference to make the audience cheer.
One of the most perplexing parts of the Mean Girls musical was the finale. While the ending of the movie does provide a positive message, it’s hidden within parody, making you see how ridiculous the social structure of high school is by exposing its flaws though an exaggerated story. However, the musical attempted to end in a sentimental way, losing that feeling of a comedy and attempting to squeeze in a more straightforward moral during the last moments of the show. Unfortunately, their the cliche idea to “be yourself” came across as extremely trite and shallow in the end.
In my opinion, the problem with shows like Mean Girls is that they can so easily fall into the trap of becoming nothing but a money-making machine with no artistry. The creators have the combination of a stellar cast of upcoming Broadway stars and a huge following from the movie, so the show won’t have a problem being a hit on Broadway. After looking at Broadway.com, the cheapest available tickets for Mean Girls are already around $109 (most are under $100 with the exception of a few shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen), yet the musical hasn’t even opened yet. That stability allows the creators to ignore the writing a bit and be lazy, letting inconsistencies and plot-holes slip by unfixed. This slippage was very noticeable in Mean Girls.
One way a musical can fail in this way is by neglecting to fully develop a character. Each character in a musical goes on a journey, no matter how small or important to the major plotline. They all have objectives they want to achieve, and the only way an audience can be content is if that objective is either completed or permanently foiled. However, many of the characters in the Mean Girls musical started a journey and never completed it. For example, Regina’s mom sings a song about wanting to be close to her daughter like in the old days, but we never see any resolution to that longing and Regina’s mom barely is onstage the rest of the play, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. Additionally, the character of Aaron Samuels is altogether disappointing. Apparently he lives alone with his mom, is lying about the school district he lives in, and used to be a jerk before he started dating Cady. However, this has many holes because Aaron was nice from the beginning of the show, and we never get to learn why he is in the situation he’s in. Was he a jerk because he felt he needed to compensate for his home-life? Was he seeking love and validation that he was missing at home? His character does not feel real and lacks a backstory the audience desperately needs to feel the full weight of his situation and what Cady does to him. It is much more interesting to watch real people onstage than fake caricatures. However, most of the characters in Mean Girls the Musical lacked that complexity that makes someone human.
After Mean Girls closes in Washington DC in early December, there are still a few months before previews begin on Broadway. I seriously hope there is a lot of rewriting that happens in that period. I feel strongly, however, that the casting of the show should not change. The powerhouse voices and acting of Erika Henningsen as Cady, Taylor Louderman as Regina, Ashley Park as Gretchen Weiners, and Barrett Weed as Janice really made the show much more enjoyable. That being said, I think that the cast deserves better writing to work with and the audiences deserve more for their money.