Preview: Mean Girls' popularity spins into film and Broadway Across Canada tour

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Welcome to the jungle, otherwise known as high school, where survival of the fittest is the name of the game.

That was Tina Fey’s invitation 20 years ago when she turned Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabees into the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls. That little movie, made for $17 million, went on to gross $130 million worldwide. It proves that regardless of whether those queen bees are called The Pink Ladies, as they were in Grease 30 years earlier, or The Plastics, as they’re known in Mean Girls, these cliques have always seemed to exist, making high school a daunting experience for any newcomer.

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In 2018, Fey turned Mean Girls into a Broadway musical where it proved just as popular, recouping its capitalization in a mere two years, only to be shuttered by the pandemic. Mean Girls has ridden its wave of popularity through a series of national tours, the latest of which, courtesy of Broadway Across Canada, visits the Edmonton Jubilee Jan. 9-14, and the Calgary Jubilee Jan. 16-21.

To help her put songs in the hearts and mouths of her bees and wannabees, Fey enlisted her composer husband Jeffrey Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin, the award-winning wordsmith of Legally Blonde The Musical. The three collaborated once again on the film version of Mean Girls, The Musical which is scheduled to open on Jan. 12 while the musical is playing at the Jubilees in Alberta.

Benjamin says Mean Girls strikes a chord with anyone who has, or is, navigating high school because “Tina writes incredibly funny, but truly human, dialogue and situations. It helps that what we’re writing about in Mean Girls is a universal experience. We’ve all been there whether we were Plastics, jocks, geeks, freaks or Mathletes. We all wanted to find a way to fit in, and that’s what Mean Girls is all about.”

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The hero of Mean Girls is Cady, a girl who has transferred to North Shore High School in Illinois from Kenya, making her a true outsider. From her first two friends, Damian and Janis, she quickly learns about all the different cliques in the school, including the Plastics ruled by Regina, the meanest of the mean girls, as Cady is destined to learn.

Mean Girls
Maryrose Brendel (Karen Smith) and the tour company of Mean Girls. Photo, Jenny Anderson cal

Benjamin says she was “definitely not a Plastic. I was definitely on the nerd syndrome, but I was fortunate to have a couple of good friends. In the lunchroom, we would sit together and observe the groups, and we saw how desperately people were trying to belong.”

Benjamin uses that experience for her song Where Do You Belong, where Damian and Janis explain the cliques to Cady and advise her to find a clique and stick to it because others will quickly judge her, and vote her in or out.

“We all learn very quickly in high school that we’re programmed to find a way to belong. It’s a terrifying experience, and we make a lot of wrong decisions. This is what we all encountered in high school, which is our key experience of getting away from our parents for the first time. Tina reminds us what it was like, but she makes it funny not painful, which is what makes Mean Girls so appealing.”

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Mean Girls shows how manipulative girls can be at this age, and Benjamin explains that’s because “girls’ anger is not valued. Girls are taught to be nice, have friends, and act properly. Boys are allowed, and even encouraged, to act out, but not girls, so that’s where, and how, the meanness develops. It’s seething and ready to come out.”

She adds it’s actually ironic that “almost everyone felt at times they were bullied, but never acknowledged that they bullied someone else. Tina shows this too and makes us think. There’s real depth to this musical. In high school, I was always trying to be logical, which is probably why I like Cady so much. Secretly I wanted to be Regina, and I think I was not alone in that, or why else were the popular people in high school so revered even though everyone always seemed to be mad at them.”

Benjamin says she loved writing the lyrics for both Legally Blonde and Mean Girls because “these shows are not jukebox musicals. The songs help move the story. They are essential to the plot. I love that kind of challenge.”

Raised in New York, she learned to love lyrics as a young girl when her mother took her to a season of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and then to a season of Stephen Sondheim musicals.

“I hope to think these incredible lyricists are among my inspirations, because, if you’re going to aim high, there’s no one higher than Gilbert and Sondheim.”

She says it was her love of Sondheim that drew her to composer Laurence O’Keefe, her husband of 22 years, and her collaborator on such musicals as Legally Blonde.

“We both thought we knew more about Sondheim, and tried to prove it to each other. Ours has to have been one of the weirdest courtships imaginable, but we found where we belonged.”

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