Get in, Losers: We’re Learning How the Mean Girls Musical Got Made

Originally published on Vanity Fair Hollywood
View this story online

“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 WannabesMean 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.”

One Response to Get in, Losers: We’re Learning How the Mean Girls Musical Got Made

  1. Heather Romero-Kornblum says:

    Hi Ms. Purcell, I agree with every word you wrote in the recent op-ed in Washington Post. I apologize for reaching out to you here on your blog comments, but I wasn’t sure how to reach you and I wanted to express my support, especially in light of some of the negative backlash to the article.
    To clarify, I am a Jewish woman – formerly observant. I am no longer observant, and my current husband is not Jewish. When I read your piece, I was instantly transported back to the world of exclusion that is often encountered in the Jewish culture. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that I left the religion. I have memories of friends and some relatives – some observant, and some extremely non-observant – who would date non-Jewish women for years, claim they were happily in love and that faith wouldn’t get between them, and then unceremoniously end their relationships claiming that, of course, they had to because their girlfriend wasn’t Jewish. This statement seemed to trump all common decency and evidently accompany memory loss about their prior statements.
    I have unfortunate memories of my aunt and uncle hearing that a good friend of mine was about to marry a really good and kind woman – except, she wasn’t Jewish – and beg me to plead with him one last time for the history of all Jewish heritage to try to get him to change his mind. Though deeply uncomfortable and sick to my stomach even today that I went along with this, I had a very uncomfortable conversation with my friend on the phone where I told him that he must end his relationship with the good woman he had committed to. To my friend’s enormous credit, he did not end the relationship with his partner, and they are happily married years later. Also to my friend’s enormous credit, he still sends me holiday cards. He is a more generous, forgiving, and tolerant person than I can imagine anyone being after being subjected to what I put him through.
    I also have memories of when I was leaving the religion and going to live in San Francisco as a completely unaffiliated person. I had friends ranging from observant to not observant in the least tell me they wanted to talk to me one last time before I left to – you guessed it – tell me to make sure I married someone Jewish. I had friends send me messages from afar after my move reminding me of this, even after I pointed out how incredibly insulting it was.
    I also want to say that when I read the part about how you were not invited to holiday events, I was deeply pained to hear that and not at all surprised. To be Jewish, for some, seems to be synonymous to excluding others. This includes others who are not Jewish, others who aren’t Jewish enough or are not Jewish in the right way, those who are not observant enough, and those that one’s family simply does not like. I am appalled that there are so many people who are throwing around the word ‘anti-Semitic’ to describe what you wrote. I am sad that they are not using it as an opportunity to take a deeper look at the how the desire to remain culturally and ethnically significant drives them to an ethnocentrism that can sometimes appear to be void of empathy and to treat others as second-class people. I am ashamed that they are so deeply discounting your personal experience. I am really sorry for all you have experienced and just want to say that I appreciate your openness to the world, and that yes, I would recommend that you tread lightly around Jewish men in the future, because I definitely could see this happening again. And you deserve to be able to protect yourself and be with a partner whose words mean something and are not preempted by the caveat of them waking up one day and realizing – shock and horror – realizing that you are not Jewish.
    Sincerely and with my best wishes,
    Heather Romero-Kornblum