This musical, based on the endlessly quotable hit movie of the same name from 2004, doesn’t seem as significant at first glance as such other musicals from the same season as The Band’s Visit and Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. On the surface, it seems an obvious successor to the Legally Blonde musical, even sharing one of its songwriters (said songwriters were a husband-and-wife team, and the other member of the team would collaborate on the score to this show’s de facto sister musical, Heathers).
The show certainly can’t be faulted for craftsmanship. The book is by the movie’s original screenwriter, comedian Tina Fey, and she has retained many of the quotable lines from the movie while adding some excellent new ones. As for the score, the songs themselves are only good, not great, but they become much more impressive when seen in the context of the show, as they do a masterful job of musicalizing these characters. The only place where I’ve seen musical characterization this individualized is in Mozart Operas, and no, that is not an exaggeration.
For example, heroine Cady just came to Chicago from living in the African savannah, so she sings in songs built on Africa rhythms, a kind of Teen Pop version of the sound heard on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Regina George, the villainess, is a femme fatale, so she sings in the style of a James Bond theme. Gretchen, her lackey, is smart and insecure, so she sings in nervous, wordy music reminiscent of a Sondheim musical. Karen, the nicest of the popular girls, is a fundamentally simple (and not very bright in the conventional sense) character who is happy with herself, so she sings in what could be described as a kind of upbeat Sugar-Pop minimalism.
Damien, the gay, showtunes-loving friend of the heroine, sings in very showy, ostentatious old-school theater music in the Jerry Herman vein. And Janis, her other friend, who is brash, defiant and makes no attempt to fit in, sings in Pop-Punk: her big number (and the show’s musical highlight), “I’d Rather Be Me”, sounds like it could be an outtake from American Idiot.
But beyond this impressive handling of character music, the show is most interesting in how it relates to the original movie. Put simply, the original movie was fundamentally a satire of teen social mores, while the musical plays as a much more nuanced character comedy. And the reasons for this might be more complex than most people realize.
It’s clear from the discussion of social media Tina Fey worked into her updated script for the musical that she strongly disapproves of the modern social-media world and the attitudes that drive it. But Fey herself, in her funny but simplistic satire of familiar stereotypes, helped shape those attitudes, especially after the movie and its various famous quotes became part of the collective unconscious of an entire generation. And part of me suspects that she knows this, and that the musical is her attempt to make amends for it.
Certainly this would explain the changes the musical made in its treatment of “The Plastics”, the exclusive clique that represents the titular “mean girls”. In the movie, Gretchen Weiners is just a spoiled rich girl who deals in secrets and seems vaguely insecure. In the musical, the creators delve much more deeply into what would have to motivate a person to latch onto powerful personalities that treat them like dirt the way Gretchen habitually does, and both the authors and Cady herself show much more sympathy for her tragically low self-esteem.
Similarly, in the movie Karen is just a stereotypical ditz and purely a target for mockery. In the musical she is ultimately simple rather than stupid, and her simplicity gives her a kind of wisdom and inner peace that none of the other characters possess. Even Regina is given a glimmer of sympathy and a measure of humanity in the musical, something that is certainly never hinted at in the movie.
Of course, one could argue that the effeminate, showtunes-loving gay kid is still an outdated stereotype. But the character is so unapologetic about being “almost too gay to function”, and the show itself is so equally unapologetic about him, that it arguably comes off as more empowering than anything else (at any rate, he certainly comes across as far more dignified than he did in the movie). I think Fey knew that eliminating his entire character would be next to impossible, and realized that a totally unashamed presentation was the only way to salvage the situation.
The point of all this was to add an additional message to the story, one so important that they spelled it right out in the finale: “Even the people you don’t like at all are still people”. Caught in an age where almost everyone has forgotten that, an age that her own movie helped to create, I see this as Fey’s attempt at an atonement, and hopefully a remedy for at least some of those who attend the musical.
At any rate, the greater humanity the show adds to this story that was previously merely a mean-spirited send-up of stereotypes is certainly quite noticeable, and the whole thing feels palpably warmer and less…well, “mean”. This is certainly the most notable way in which it improves upon the film, which, for all its humor and insight, comes off as somewhat condescending and shallow in comparison. And since pretty much everyone seems like they could use a reminder of this musical’s message right now, I can definitely say I recommend it.