If you’re in the Broadway business, pray you never see one of your shows advertised on the wall at Joe Allen. The Midtown Manhattan restaurant and noted theatrical hangout has become known over the decades for its enjoyably bleak collection of old theater posters, which share a common theme: The plays and musicals they depict were all commercial flops.
Observing the collection over the weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that a fair number of these ill-fated productions were musicals inspired by Hollywood movies. This includes two relatively recent additions to the wall: Leap of Faith, based on the 1992 Steve Martin movie, and American Psycho, a synth-pop reimagining of the cult-classic novel and film. I saw both of these musical adaptations during their short Broadway runs and can say that neither eclipses their cinematic counterparts. The first was based on mediocre source material that almost everyone has forgotten, while the second was inspired by a pitch-black satire with a singular genre-bending tone that proved impossible to replicate.
That these musical incarnations were failures shouldn’t be a complete surprise to anyone.
What would surprise me is if Mean Girls were to join them. The hilarious musical retelling of Tina Fey’s 2004 comedy opened Sunday at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre and turns out to be that rare movie-to-stage translation that succeeds at almost every level, from its whip-smart writing and frenetically paced scene changes to its timely #MeToo-era message.
Like the movie that inspired it, Mean Girls lampoons the hyper-defined social cliques that form like protein deposits in many American high schools. It’s a standard fish-out-of-water comedy told through the eyes of 16-year-old Cady Heron, a transplant from Kenya whose home-schooled life among the beasts of the African savannah did not prepare her for the predatory wildlife of an upper-class public high school in suburban Chicago. Early in the story, Cady is easy prey for the alpha-girl group known as the “Plastics,” but through cunning and deceit, she is able to jostle her way up the food chain and challenge the school’s reigning queen bee, Regina George, a ruthless master of hurtful burns.
If you’ve seen Mean Girls the movie—and even if you haven’t—you already know the story. All the high school tropes are here, right down to the parents-free house party and requisite spring dance, and neither the movie nor the stage version is very interested in subverting the formula. They just have fun with it. Rolling desks, spinning lunchroom trays, and dazzling projected backgrounds take us through the familiar terrain of High School, USA, and an uninhibited cast—led by an impressively versatile Erika Henningsen as Cady—give themselves over to the material.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” we’re told at the outset, only to watch the entire company throw caution to the wind.
Critical consensus and fickle audiences may certainly prove me wrong, but I can see Mean Girls becoming one of the more enduring movie-inspired musicals to come along in a while. Sure, Broadway has plenty of empty calories, but it can always use more well-executed ones.
Will It Make Money?
At least a half-dozen movie-to-musical adaptations are currently running on Broadway, including Waitress, School of Rock, and A Bronx Tale—to say nothing of the Disney trifecta of The Lion King, Aladdin, and now Frozen. A much-cited study from producer Ken Davenport revealed that just 21% of Broadway shows ever recoup their investments, so it’s understandable that producers would want to hedge their bets with familiar material. As Stewart F. Lane, producer of the still-touring musical adaptation of Legally Blonde, pointed out to me in an interview last year, some producers have a better track record than others. It starts with being smart about project selection.
But as Joe Allen’s Wall of Flops indicates, the baseline of a Hollywood movie is no guarantee of stage success. On the contrary, too often it’s an excuse for laziness, or complacency, or the hubris of believing a show can subsist on hype alone. If that were true, it would be news to the original cast of Carrie, one of Broadway’s most notorious flops, also inspired by a film.
One of the reasons movie-to-musical adaptations so often fail is because they are reverse engineered without purpose or craft. Screenwriters who have had the good fortune of tapping out a winning movie script a few decades ago may want to parlay that success into a glitzy Broadway credit, which is fine, except that they sometimes insist on penning the stage adaptation themselves, even if they don’t have the stage-writing chops to pull it off.
Take last season’s Groundhog Day, which was based on the 1993 Bill Murray movie, and which confoundedly managed to score a Tony nomination for Best Musical, despite being a rudderless mess. Writer Danny Rubin struck gold with his original high-concept storyline of a shallow weatherman who relives the same day over and over again. That device is impeccably realized in the movie, which tackles weighty philosophical concepts like free will and rebirth. But the slow and contemplative evolution of Murray’s character was so clearly dependent on the intimacy of film, it’s mind-boggling that anyone thought it could ever work as a musical.
Also, why mess with something that already worked so well on screen? Was anyone really pining to see Ned Ryerson sing his heart out? Or Rocky Balboa, for that matter? There’s probably a reason why successful musical adaptions—say, Hairspray or The Producers—tend to be based on movies that were flawed to begin with.
Not Trying To Be More Than It Is
Actually, it’s here where Mean Girls is an outlier. As a movie, it was already a success, and yet it still exists on its own terms as a musical. The secret ingredient is Tina Fey, a master comedy writer who gives us a book packed with smart dialogue, clever jokes, and SNL-caliber sight gags. Not all of them work (the exaggerated body pads meant to show that Regina has gained weight were cringe-worthy), but they come at us so fast that we’re never allowed to get bored.
Mean Girls isn’t going to change your life, but then it doesn’t aspire to, which is not the same as saying it doesn’t have a point to make. The moral of the story—that women are better off when they support each other—has more resonance now than ever before, and Fey is happy to capitalize on the cultural moment. “We have to stop beating each other up over every little thing because meanwhile, men are running around grabbing butts and shooting everybody,” says Ms. Norbury, the school’s calculus teacher (who was played by Fey in the film).
Having seen so many poorly done movie-inspired musicals, I admit I went into Mean Girls with tempered expectations. That’s a good thing, because regardless of how theater snobs like me feel about Broadway’s unquenchable thirst for Hollywood source material, there is no end in sight for the trend: Pretty Woman, Bull Durham, Beaches, Beetlejuice, Tootsie, Magic Mike, The Devil Wears Prada, and Empire Records are just a few of the big screen-inspired musicals in the works.
It would be nice to see the creative teams behind these forthcoming efforts use Mean Girls as a blueprint. But just to be safe, maybe the managerial staff at Joe Allen should start making extra room on that wall.