I recently had the pleasure of seeing Mean Girls on Broadway. Full disclosure: I have seen the 2004 film Mean Girls approximately 1,377 times. I am what you might call a fan. I know all the lines and have very strong opinions about wearing pink on Wednesdays and trying to make fetch happen. And so my expectations for the musical were unavoidably high. And in many ways, it did not disappoint. Much of the plot remained the same: Plastics rule the school, art freaks hatch a plan to take them down, and—most importantly—Glen Coco gets a self-esteem boost.
But the show also received some necessary updates from the original. You have Janis and Damian as quasi-narrators telling a cautionary tale, providing a framework for the show and adding a new, readily-embraced dimension to their characters. And the fourteen-year gap between movie and musical is most obviously displayed in the talent show scene. In the movie, a skipping CD results in a boom box getting kicked in someone’s face. In the Broadway production, the song stops because of a wardrobe-malfunction-turned-social-media-scandal, because many of today’s teens have neither seen a boom box nor know that kicking it is not an appropriate thing to do, but they know a good social media scandal when they see one.
Of course, there were changes that a die hard fan of the movie like me had a harder time swallowing. There was no nephew named Anfernee. The Danny DeVito line comes almost immediately after being introduced to Damian and doesn’t really land. Ms. Norbury pops up randomly in less of a “oh you’re here!” way and more of a “Oh I totally forgot you were a named character” way.
But my biggest sticking points went beyond cosmetics and into character. Take our protagonist, Cady Heron: instead of being the content jungle freak who gets reluctantly moved to the States, taking her from her happy life in Africa and dropping her into a suburban Illinois high school, the Broadway musical Cady Heron is a jungle freak who has been actively wishing that she could be a American teenager in America, and she is ecstatic when she gets the opportunity. She has a bright-eyed naiveté that Lindsay Lohan has not possessed since before her Parent Trap days. She bounces around with boundless energy and—naturally, given the context—has a penchant for breaking into song. The fact of the matter is that the film version of Cady Heron is much more into Ladysmith Black Mambazo than Broadway show tunes, while the musical version definitely put the Wicked soundtrack on her iPod Nano while she dreamed of life beyond the great wide savanna. It gives the character a distinctly different feel in a way that takes out the caustic core of the movie and replaces it with some old-fashioned warm fuzzy musical theatre feelings.
Then there is the matter of Regina George. The introduction to this character is well-executed, as the Plastics are dramatically rolled in on their lunch table. Anticipation builds as Regina opens her mouth to deliver her first line. “My name is Regina George,” she delivers in a cutesy, exaggerated, nasally sing-songy way. People laugh—it’s supposed to be funny. But my guard goes up immediately. Regina George is powerful, wrathful, maniacal, and—as you may have guessed—mean. But she is not a ditz. She did not come to power incidentally, just as she does not relinquish her power easily either. Particularly at the beginning of the story, she is a force to be reckoned with, not a joke to be laughed at. While the performance did not maintain the dim-witted portrayal throughout, it crept in enough to make it an artistic choice that I just couldn’t get behind.
Despite these qualms, the changes in the musical ultimately make it stand on its own as a surprisingly sincere work. There is a brief moment in the show when the audience is invited to feel sympathy for Regina’s mom; it is not at all reminiscent of Amy Poehler’s hilarious portrayal in the film, but it is really refreshing. Karen Smith is one of the unsung heroes of Mean Girls, and in the musical, she gets to be the center of attention during her solo about the greatness of Halloween that I will play in her honor every October 31 (and also every October 3). It does what any good adaptation should do: celebrates its source material while being a separate piece of art. At this point, I still prefer the film to the musical, but let me watch the show 1,376 more times and get back to you.
Catherine Kramer (’14) has a degree in English and works in publishing. Her continued existence is made possible by grace, warm hugs, and iced chai lattes.