Originally published on Vanity Fair Hollywood
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“Bitches get shit done!” Coming from soft-spoken Nell Benjamin, this foul language is slightly surprising. But the sentiment—first declared by Tina Fey in 2008 on Saturday Night Live, subbing in the word “stuff”—is fitting. Benjamin, a composer, writer, and lyricist, is Fey’s collaborator on the new musical Mean Girls, which opens on Broadway April 8.
Benjamin certainly knows a thing or two about getting shit done; she’s written music, lyrics, and scripts about everything from law students to dogs. But it’s the use of the word “bitch” that the Tony nominee really savors, especially in the context of her latest project.
Adapted from Fey’s beloved 2004 film—which, in turn, was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 nonfiction book, Queen Bees and Wannabes—Mean Girls struts onto Broadway at a seemingly perfect moment. Amid the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, attempts to empower women and promote gender equality have become the new normal. The story of Cady, a teenager who moves from the jungles of Africa to the wilds of suburbia and rebels against the social hierarchy at her high school, will no doubt be a top choice for mother-daughter trips to the theater in the upcoming months.
Benjamin already has plenty of experience in this arena. The Harvard grad broke into Broadway by writing the music and lyrics for the musical adaptation of Legally Blonde alongside her husband, Laurence O’Keefe (who also co-wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the musical adaptation of another high-school horror story, Heathers). Tackling Mean Girls was a natural next step. “Who wouldn’t want to write Regina George’s song?” she says, referring to the ruthless queen bee who takes Cady under her wing, then makes her life hell. “I’m very interested in doing shows about, for, and by women. Not to the exclusion of other things, but it’s just where I like to live.”
The musical’s creative team—including book writer Fey, composer Jeff Richmond (who also happens to be Fey’s husband), and Benjamin—was determined not to simply plop the movie on stage. They set their adaptation in the present day, incorporating the joys and horrors of social media into the story—although the Burn Book is still ink and paper. (And despite Gretchen’s best efforts, “fetch” is still not happening.)
During Benjamin’s own adolescence, entertainment aimed at teenagers often centered on a brave soul standing up to bullies and inspiring others to do the same. But that doesn’t often happen in real life, even though she wishes she had taken initiative like that herself.
Cady’s story, she adds, “speaks to me, being in that place: ‘what does everybody know that I don’t know? How did they learn these rules? How can I learn these rules? I’m a smart person. I can do math. Why can’t I pick up on this? Why am I always a week behind the movie we’re watching, or the band we all like, or the clothes we’re wearing?’”
Those questions are puzzled over by Cady in “Stupid With Love,” a song Benjamin calls very close to her heart. The academically intelligent but socially confused teenager laments:
By 13 I gave up trying
I decided I would be a mathematician
‘Cause math is real
I memorized a lot of pi
Because addition and subtraction and division
Would never make me feel
So stupid with love
Mean Girls has heart, but it’s also got the movie’s bite, as well as the humor both Fey and Richmond are known for. Cady’s first glimpse of Regina is set to the ominous, scientifically inspired “Apex Predator.” After being invited to sit with the Plastics (and making sure she wears pink on Wednesday), Cady—the homeschooled daughter of scientists—reflects:
She’s the queen of beasts,
And I’m in her pride
I have hitched a ride
With the apex predator
And it makes me smile
When she bares her claws
When I’m safe because
I’m with the apex predator
It’s Regina’s power over Cady—and Cady’s determination to dethrone her—that drives the plot of Mean Girls. But the story is not as simple as good girl vs. bad girl, Benjamin stresses. While Regina can be cruel, the lyricist says, she is not a bad person.
“Nobody wants to be mean, but everyone wants to kind of find their inner boss. And I think there’s a way to make Regina’s inner boss really positive, and I think in our musical Tina has done that in spades,” she explains. “You realize the reason people are like, ‘Bitch!’ is half because, yes, she is a dangerous person socially, but also part of her is finding that place where she can assert authority. Unfortunately, she can’t assert it in a larger sphere, so she has to assert it over less-powerful women.”
But there’s nothing wrong with asserting your authority, Benjamin adds. “There’s nothing wrong with, ‘I want to be this way.’ What’s wrong is, ‘If you don’t do this with me, you will be ostracized.’”
The fear of being ostracized and the desire to be liked are what Benjamin, the mother of a young daughter, explores in her lyrics. But she also goes deeper, into the emotions buried in those needs and the dangers of letting them remain buried.
“You may not do this consciously, but in trying to get your daughter lots of friends and watching the things that say, ‘Be caring, be sharing,’ girls really internalize that their power is these networks,” she says. “They’re really scared to lose connections, and stay in these very abusive relationships when they’re young. And it sets them up later for not believing their own feelings.
“So they have to be nice and can’t say, ‘You’re a bad person and you’re treating me bad,’ because then people will say, ‘Oh, you’re pushy. Oh, you’re bitchy. You’re shrill. You’re outspoken,’” she continues. “That, I think, is what leads to these games of pretending to be really, really nice, but building up a grudge. It’s not exclusive to girls; it’s just that we’re focusing on girls.”
This sentiment is given voice by school rebel Janis, in a defiant song called “I’d Rather Be Me”:
So here’s my right finger
To “how girls should behave”
Sometimes what’s meant to break you
Makes you brave
Janis’s big moment comes during a school assembly in which students bear their souls and tell their most shameful secrets. While it’s undoubtedly dramatic, Benjamin wishes more of these discussions were as honest as Mean Girls is in this scene. Years ago, she says, bullying “felt like a secret shame, both to receive it but also to do it. Now that there’s attention on it, we may not get it right—but at least we’re having a conversation.”