THE STORY – New student Cady Heron gets welcomed into the top of the social food chain by an elite group of popular girls called the Plastics, ruled by the conniving queen bee Regina George. However, when Cady makes the major misstep of falling for Regina’s ex-boyfriend, she soon finds herself caught in their crosshairs.
THE CAST – Angourie Rice, Reneé Rapp, Auliʻi Cravalho, Christopher Briney, Tina Fey & Tim Meadows
THE TEAM – Samantha Jayne, Arturo Perez Jr. (Directors) & Tina Fey (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 112 Minutes
“Mean Girls: The Musical” was never a good musical to begin with. Nominated for 12 Tony Awards in a weak year for musicals, the show had a good run thanks to brand recognition, a killer young cast, and some viral social media videos, but neither Tina Fey’s barbed book nor Casey Nicholaw’s go-for-broke choreography could overcome the show’s generic music and lyrics, by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin respectively. Given that the show likely would have continued running were it not for the COVID-enforced Broadway shutdown, it’s perhaps inevitable that someone would try to bring it to the big screen. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, though, and now “Mean Girls” doesn’t feel so much like a fresh take on a beloved film as it does a take on its own opening number, “A Cautionary Tale”: This is how not to adapt a Broadway musical to the big screen.
The tale of “Mean Girls” begins with the decision to make a musical of the 2004 film. It certainly felt more like a cash grab than a genuine artistic passion in conception, which seemed to be confirmed by the show’s workmanlike execution. The show has its moments – namely everything involving Janis and Damian (home-schooled Cady’s guides to her new high school, who convince her to befriend popular mean girl Regina George so that they can destroy her) and hilarious solo songs for Regina’s hangers-on Gretchen and Karen – but the blandly generic blend of pop-rock and modern musical comedy sounds that define the show’s songs leaves the score stranded in a no-man’s-land between the sound of millennials who saw the film in its original release and that of today’s high schoolers. In trying to make a show that would appeal to all ages, the show’s creative team ended up sanding away most of the film’s rough edges, leaving it without the personality that made the film a classic. The show works, but it’s merely serviceable, nothing particularly special or memorable.
Saying that the film adaptation of the musical only makes things worse is an understatement. The film adaptation does fix one of the show’s biggest problems, tightening the second act so that it can keep pace with the speed of the first. Unfortunately, in order to get the show’s ungodly two-and-a-half-hour runtime closer to the original film’s 97 minutes, most of the show’s best songs have ended up on the cutting room floor. Coincidentally, the cut songs represent the more traditionally musical comedy-sounding parts of the film’s score, with the most Spotify-friendly tracks (which are neither as catchy nor as lyrically clever as the cut songs) remaining. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, considering that the film’s Regina is Broadway replacement and up-and-coming recording artist Reneé Rapp. It makes sense to tap into the sound of her big songs, as those are the ones most likely to catch listeners’ attention. Rapp has a big, versatile voice, but her key song “World Burn” is a mid-tempo slog of meandering melodies and ever-higher notes. Make no mistake, she absolutely slays in the role, nailing the casual nature of Regina’s cruelty and the fire that drives the film’s climax, but the material she has to work with is undercooked.
After the adaptation, the next chapter of our cautionary tale is the casting. While all of the main actors carve out singular takes on the characters that don’t feel too indebted to either the original film or Broadway cast members, they don’t all entirely work. Rapp’s casting feels like a calculated choice to lure in ticket buyers, but it’s hard to fault her, especially when she looks so much like her movie mom, Busy Phillips (having an absolute blast and all the funnier for it). Avantika is the most successful at making her character her own, finding a hilarious spin on the dumber-than-bricks Karen that feels entirely new. The film even found a way to preserve the show’s best gag, which takes place at the top of her solo song “Sexy,” in a way that works on film. As with the original Karen Amanda Seyfried, she’s the unsung hero of the cast. As gossip hound Gretchen Wieners, Bebe Wood brings the right amount of desperate energy to the role, but the comedy of her solo song “What’s Wrong With Me?” takes a back seat to the dramatic character material when it should be the driving force. It’s a legitimate choice but an odd one. Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Moana herself, may seem like bizarre casting in the part of edgy art freak Janis, but she has the acting chops to match her powerhouse singing voice. It’s just a pity that the staging of the end of her considerable number “I’d Rather Be Me” completely undercuts her moment of triumph (for both performer and character). Jaquel Spivey, the only Tony nominee in the cast (for 2022’s Best Musical winner “A Strange Loop”), makes a seamless transition to the screen as the “almost too gay to function” Damian. His comic timing has a higher hit rate than anyone else, and he adjusts his shining voice to fit in perfectly with the ensemble while still maintaining its personality.
Unfortunately, Angourie Rice is a big nothing in the lead role of Cady. Cady is supposed to be a bit of a blank slate (all the better to sell her transformation), but whereas her predecessors in the role found ways to inject some personality, Rice doesn’t. Rice went through extensive vocal training to be able to sing the role, and while her voice has an appealing quality to it, she suffers from the same problem that afflicts most non-singers in their first movie musical: Her voice sounds too focused on hitting the notes exactly to bring any personality to the songs. She sounds good but mechanical and not in an obviously AutoTuned way. There’s no sense of musicality to her singing, no feel for phrasing or flow, just notes. It doesn’t help that the sound mix renders some of the more tongue-twisty bits of the songs incomprehensible no matter who’s singing, but Rice is a gaping void right at the center of the film, and even if everything around her was more solid, it couldn’t recover from that.
This brings us to the last chapter of our cautionary tale, the filmmaking itself. Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. do get two important things right: First, they nail Cady’s gradual socialization process, slowly adjusting her look and performance style to show how she absorbs the behavior of those around her to become more and more like Regina in a more effective way than either the original film or stage show. Second, they clearly delineate the real world from the fantasy musical world. Most of the time, anyway. The editing transitions of “Stupid With Love,” the tiles of party-prep Instagram videos in “Sexy,” and the time stop of “Someone Gets Hurt” all display a knack for musical storytelling on film. Because these moments work so well, though, it becomes ruinous in the numbers where it doesn’t work (“Revenge Party” feels too fantastical, “What’s Wrong With Me?” too grounded in reality), and downright baffling in moments like Regina’s entrance, in which she sings, “and these, these are real,” while we can’t even see her cleavage. The film overflows with missed opportunities for laughs and lapses in internal logic (why include Tim Meadows’s line from the original film about having already paid the DJ for the Spring Fling dance if you have a band play during the scene? Why include “A Cautionary Tale” if you’re going to abandon the show’s conceit of Janis and Damian as narrators?) that may have been minor annoyances in a better film, but here become full-on problems. Fey is still a sharp writer, but the cast can’t quite find the right rhythm for her jokes to land as often as they should. It’s especially disappointing since the original “Mean Girls” is still consistently hilarious even twenty years later, and even the jokes carried over from that film don’t land as well here.
And there you have it, folks—our cautionary tale of how not to make a musical. Future filmmakers who would like to make a movie musical adapted from a Broadway show, heed the lessons we have learned here: Pick strong source material. If your source material relies heavily on the proscenium stage and live audience to work, be ready with a creative workaround. Don’t sacrifice all of your best songs for narrative efficiency – a good song is a good song; if your film is good, the audience will stay with it. Fill your cast with singers who can act as opposed to actors who can sing, and give them the freedom to make the characters their own (or just hire the original Broadway cast). Create a strong visual sensibility to separate the “musical world” from the “real world” since audiences won’t buy people just breaking into song anymore and stick to it. And lastly, fully commit to the spirit of the show. Make appropriate changes, but make sure that it has a beating heart instead of hard, cold plastic at its core. Because of its source material, “Mean Girls” was never going to be great, but it didn’t have to be bad. At least the limit to its badness exists.