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Opinion: “Mean Girls: the Musical” Doesn’t Work

Lauren Miller ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

 

Adapting a story from one medium to another is no easy task. For starters, different mediums have different conventions and what may work in, say, a film may not work in a musical. Things have to be cut and added and tweaked and molded to fit the expectations of the form. On top of that, the story that’s being adapted carries a certain amount of baggage. Some stories, when put under the scrutiny to transform from one medium to another, begin to show flaws that didn’t seem to always be there: poorly developed characters, contrived plot lines, out of date references or jokes, things that we’ve accepted in the original story for whatever reason but clearly won’t accept from the adaptation. All of this doesn’t even touch on the expectations of an audience that’s already developed their own ideas of what’s important or what works about the story and, usually, how it should be adapted.

With all of this at play, how does one make a successful adaptation? More to the point, what does an audience expect from a good adaptation of a beloved (or even not) story? When you gather a group of Mean Girls fans, on Wednesday, October 3rd, in the August Wilson Theater to watch Mean Girls: the Musical mostly on tickets won for free in the online lottery, how do you give them something they’ll appreciate?

We have to start with a preface: there a lot of reasons for adapting a story, but a major one is financial. In general, people gravitate towards familiar properties when seeking out things to watch or read. Especially when spending the amount of money necessary to travel to New York City and see a Broadway show, people are more likely to see things they recognize like Mean Girls or Frozen than, say, Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812. (Though these days, not even name recognition is enough to save shows. RIP to Groundhog Day, gone but never forgotten.) They come with built-in fan bases and can be much easier to market before the show even opens. So in some ways, adaptations exist purely because they are safe bets for investors.

But if we’re to be at all optimistic about this, as I always like to be, there must be some creative drive to adapt a property to a new medium. Someone, a writer or director or producer, is drawn to the original work and pushed to adapt it because there’s something in there that resonates with them as an artist, something they want to elevate. Why else would Lin-Manuel Miranda spend eight years writing a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton? The kernel of truth and wisdom at the center of the story that we usually refer to as the theme resonated with the artist so much that they’re compelled to work to lift up that message.

It’s the same part of the story that connected with this built-in fan base and therefore the part of the story that lingers most in an audience’s mind when judging an adaptation. Does this piece have the same or a similar message to the original? Does it convey that message well? Do things get distorted in translation? If the message is changed, then why? How? We want to see our favorite characters, hear our favorite lines, and relive the moments that made us fans in the first place. But more than anything, we want a reaffirmation of that central truth we found so impactful. Everything else acts to support that.

And this is the problem, at least for me, with Mean Girls: the Musical. It’s not hard to determine the message of the original film, it’s said enough times in various ways to be memorable. “Calling someone else fat doesn’t make you skinnier,” or “calling someone else dumb doesn’t make you any smarter.” Yes, Regina and Gretchen and Karen are horrible or at least very unpleasant people, but tearing them down did nothing to make Cady, Janis, or Damian for that matter, any happier. It’s only when everyone took their fingers out of each other’s lives that Northshore High found some sense of peace and harmony.

Mean Girls: the Musical appears to have this same message. Damian and Janis, who serve as narrators for the musical, hand the audience the moral of the story directly in the finale. Except that it doesn’t feel true. By the end of the show, Janis, Damian, and Cady are not people worth listening to. You’re not convinced they’ve earned the moral high ground to make such declarations. In fact, Mean Girls: the Musical just leaves you thinking they should have been better people to begin with. The central failing of the musical adaptation is that it takes what should be the journey of Cady Heron and turns it into the tragedy of Regina George.

The reason Mean Girls the film works is because of how shallow most of the characters actually are. In particular, the Plastics never develop past the one line descriptions given to them by Janis and Damian. Karen really is the dumbest person you’ll ever meet; there’s no hidden intellect or inner life. Regina George is a vain Queen Bee that uses and abuses people. Her moments of “vulnerability” just serve to illuminate how shallow she is. She cries losing a boyfriend she was cheating on, she yells at her friends when they hold her to her own rules, she’s horrible to her mom at every turn. The only Plastic that invokes our sympathy is Gretchen Weiners––and even her problems stem more from her envy of Regina and belief in her own superiority, because her father is the inventor of Toaster Strudel, than any true sense of self.

But this works in the film’s favor. When Janis, Damian, and Cady set out to manipulate and trick the Plastics, it is easy to root for them. There’s no moral quandary, no questioning of their behavior, no sense that they should stop. Even when Regina gets hit by a bus, you don’t feel a twinge of sympathy for her, only shock. Because the Plastics aren’t real people. They’re stereotypes. They’re mean girls. That’s why, at the end, when Cady leaves her Plastic persona behind and commits to peace, the message feels genuine. It’s a personal choice rather than a path that should have always been obvious. Even though the Plastics aren’t real people and are so, so easy to be mean to, there’s nothing to gain from it. And there’s everything to gain from being nice to them.

Photo credit to Joan Marcus

But the musical takes what were shallow stereotypes, obsessed with their looks and their boys and their school status, and gives them inner lives they never possessed before. Part of this is the demands of musical theater. To write a version of Mean Girls: the Musical where Regina, Gretchen, and Karen don’t sing would be impossible and the Plastics of the film can only really sustain one song. So, to meet the demands of the medium, you have to develop each of the girls in ways the movie never did.

Karen, the dumbest person you’ll ever meet, suddenly becomes the show’s feminist icon spouting such lines as, “This is modern feminism talking, I expect to run the world in shoes I cannot walk in.” It may be hilarious and biting social satire that we expect from Tina Fey, but it destroys our sense of Karen’s character. In other scenes where Karen does such things as jumping up and down for a boy when he says he can guess her bra size, laughing feels wrong. This isn’t a girl so dumb she genuinely doesn’t know any better. This is a girl so forced into the “hot one” stereotype that she’s squashing down her own intelligence. And we, the audience, are supposed to support that because it’s funny.

Gretchen Weiners is no longer a vain number two to Regina. With the addition of her repeated solos, their relationship takes on a much darker tone. The line, “I feel like an iPhone without a case. I know I’m worth a lot, but at any moment I could just shatter,” is played for comedy. But it doesn’t feel right to laugh at what’s one of the most honest confessions of insecurity ever written. And later, when Janis, Damian, and Cady scheme to push Gretchen over the edge just to take down Regina, it’s impossible to root for them. Gretchen isn’t ridiculously, hilarious insecure. She’s a normal teenage girl looking for someone to tell her she has worth after years of being put down and Cady knowingly manipulates that.

But of course, the biggest harm done is in the change of Regina George’s character. It’s no coincide that Taylor Louderman was nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for this part; Mean Girls: the Musical belongs entirely to her. Not only her incredible belting and well-rounded performance, but in the sense that the changes to the story make Regina more of a sympathetic protagonist than Cady, Janis, or Damian. In the film, she’s a vapid, power-hungry, attention-driven teen monster. There’s nothing underneath that. But in the musical, we’re made to understand that this is all a coping mechanism for deep-seated insecurity. Take what is arguably the best song in the show, “Someone Gets Hurt.” It’s played as a manipulation of Aaron Samuels and we’re meant to question most of what she says, but it also has lines that cut straight to the core: “Feel my heart beating, I’m just like her or you. People forget I’m human too. Yes, they do that.” How do you not feel for a girl so trapped in her own persona that even her vulnerability has to be done in a song-and-dance routine?

Photo credit to Joan Marcus

And there are other moments that build on this. In the film, the asides show that the student body absolutely adores Regina. But in the musical, she’s pretty widely hated. Regina of the film rules out of love and adoration, but Regina of the musical rules out of fear. She’s so isolated, her own mother and best friend forget that she’s a person who can bleed. Add on top of that her body issues so intense she spends one whole scene on a treadmill and you understand that this Regina really is all self-defense. (Side note: the padding they use in the musical to make Regina “fat” is incredibly offensive. It always seemed purposeful that you can’t tell Rachel McAdams has gained weight in the film; Regina’s body problems are a construct of unrealistic expectations, she’s still gorgeous. But in the play, they give her a padded butt and gut larger than realistically make sense all for a joke where your meant to laugh at the largeness she’s obviously insecure about? It turns the audience, and Northshore High for that matter, into people that are actually laughing at a girl for being outside the expected body standards. It’s horrible, especially from a show that carries so many feminist messages.)

Regina’s last scene makes this even more obvious. In the bathroom at the Spring Fling, she tells Cady to never apologize for being a boss and explains that people call her a bitch because she’s a strong woman. It’s solid advice and, with this iteration of Regina, a better explanation for why the school turns against her so quickly. She could be mean, yes, but it was lashing out of insecurity. And besides, people didn’t hate her because she was mean. People hated her because she had power.

All of these changes deliver one final blow to Mean Girls: the Musical, which is that Cady, Janis, and Damian become villains. The stereotyped personalities Janis and Damian assign to the Plastics aren’t accurate, they’re mean and reductive ways of viewing people just because they don’t like them. Their crusade to take down Regina isn’t noble, it’s vengeful and mean. Regina barely even mentions Janis in the musical, which means Janis is holding onto a grudge from when she was 13. Cady comes out the worst in all of this. She’s the one who glimpses into the inner lives of the Plastics, but never develops sympathy beyond hating how Regina treats Gretchen and Karen. She continues on with her horrible plan anyway. Janis sings a song to turn the whole school against her, turning Janis into a revolutionary rather than an outcast makes her character much crueler. When Regina gets hit by the bus, it’s too late for Cady’s change to feel like anything other than a perfunctory redemption.

Mean Girls: the Musical claims to be about how calling someone else dumb won’t make you any smarter. Yet Damian, who calls Karen the dumbest person you’ll ever meet in his second scene, never seems to realize this message for himself. In fact, the real message of the show is delivered by that dumbest person you’ll ever meet in her last big scene. After Cady has confessed to the Burn Book and been suspended, Karen explains the “rule of twos.” How everything is actually two things: Cady was spying on the Plastics and having fun with them, Regina was mean to Karen AND mean to herself. The Plastics were bullies AND Cady, Janis, and Damian treated them poorly. Regina was the antagonist AND the true tragic figure of Mean Girls: the Musical. Mean Girls: the Musical has feminist messages AND never makes its protagonist acknowledge the humanity of the Plastics.

Then again, maybe it’s all intentional. Maybe the packaging of the Plastics inner lives into these catchy, comedic songs is meant to be a comment on how teenage girls are taught to weaponize vulnerability for their own gain. Maybe it’s showing how these girls are under so much pressure to fit their prescribed stereotypes, they can only show their true selves in flashy musical numbers. Or maybe in the years since Mean Girls came out, Tina Fey has found herself developing more sympathy for the stereotypes she created and wanted to show that, yes, these girls are people too, even if she couldn’t work it into the overall story.

But this is the danger of adaptations. In films, characters can exist as no more than stereotypes. Shallow characterizations built for comedy can last through whole films. In musicals, there has to be more to them. The medium demands justification for singing and dancing, which means each character has to feel something strongly enough to sing about it and suddenly stereotypes are full-blown people. We can’t laugh along and root for Cady, Janis, and Damian in the musical because we already know that the people they’re hurting are, well, people. So when Janis and Damian come out to give us a moral lecture, we can’t trust anything they say.

Photo credit to Joan Marcus

There’s a lot to love about Mean Girls: the Musical. For all its other failings like uninspired songs and half-hearted modern updates, it has a few genuine bops, some great gags, and outstanding vocals that will induce goosebumps. There’s energy and joy behind the show, certainly. And it works hard to be a pleasing adaptation. It keeps the most iconic lines, Kevin G still raps, and there is more than enough pink to satisfy a die-hard fan. But it’s lost the heart of Mean Girls, the message that has resonated with audiences for well over ten years and shaped a whole generation of girls. Which means that, as an adaptation, it can only be a failure.

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