Nominated for 12 Tony Awards this year, the hit musical Mean Girls also boasts a very fun and catchy (and Tony-nominated) score by songwriters Nell Benjamin (lyrics) and Jeff Richmond (music). The recent Tony nominees wrote a track by track breakdown of the recently released album, explaining the ideas behind songs, how things morphed from a Washington, D.C., tryout to opening night on Broadway, and why wanting to watch the world burn isn't just for guys. Act 1 is from Richmond; Benjamin wrote about the show's second act songs.
“A Cautionary Tale”
They say the thing that changes most throughout the process of writing a musical is the opening, because you’re creating context and expectations for the rest of the evening. This was definitely true of our show. Ultimately, we felt it was important to start Mean Girls with a word of warning so that the audience knew to be wary of certain behaviors from our lead characters. First thing you hear is the overture (masterfully orchestrated by John Clancy). It’s an overly dramatic, rock and roll riff that comes from Regina’s second act number, “World Burn.” We often use this musical strain when something brutal is about to happen. Next we meet our narrators: We always knew that Janis and Damian would be the voice of that warning because they are the true outsiders of our story. “A Cautionary Tale” gives you a bit of a dark folktale that sets you up for the story that will unfold.
We soon arrive in Africa where we meet Cady. This used to be a completely different song, “Wild Life,” in our out-of-town tryout. But we learned from audiences in Washington, D.C., that we needed to know more about how Cady felt. What would she be yearning for on the African savannah that she feels she could find in a suburban high school? So Nell lyrically brought up the idea that what an average teenage girl might be feeling on a daily basis could be summed up as a roar—a primal sound that comes from the deepest part of you. And that idea was certainly fitting in the world of wildebeests and lions in which she was brought up. Cady, at her most truthful, sings from a place of simplicity, a place where mandolins meet acoustic guitars. “It Roars” is a simple tune that becomes louder and angrier as she moves from Kenya to North Shore High School. There’s a huge tonal shift once Cady enters high school that carries through to the end of the song, but underneath it, Cady still roars for acceptance.
“Where Do You Belong?”
Tina, Nell and I wanted each character to be able to sing from an honest place. We kept this in mind not only lyrically, but also in the style of music we chose. We didn't want to write a score where everything sounded like pop music just because they were teenagers. We knew that Janis wouldn’t sing the same kind of song as Regina would and so forth. As the gay kid from swing choir, we always knew Damian would sing as if he were living in a musical comedy. In “Where Do You Belong?” he and Janis introduce Cady to the many cliques in the high school lunchroom but in a high-stepping, toe-tapping production number.
“Meet The Plastics”
Continuing the introductions around the carefteria, we come upon the Plastics, the royalty of North Shore High. First we meet Regina. Regina’s true voice is the quiet, hypnotic power of a Bond theme song. She’s pretty, yet poisonous. And the first time we hear her, she isn’t belting. It’s almost a stage whisper. That’s a status move of someone who’s in full control—make them come to you. Next there's Gretchen, who can never quite figure herself out. Her lyrics are complex and her style of music is always shifting, like Gretchen herself, who is always trying to find and retain her social footing. And then there’s Karen: the dumbest girl you’ll ever meet. Karen is simple and lovely—just like the little tune she sings about herself. Which doesn’t quite end, it just stops when Karen is finished. They are three very different young women, but when they finish the song together in a Rondo, we understand why they work as a unit.
“Stupid With Love”
This is the first song Nell and I wrote. Nell had the idea that we should set up the idea of Cady being great at math but totally in over her head when it came to the opposite sex. When we first wrote it, we approached it as an old-school charm song—not really moving the plot forward, but giving us a moment with our protagonist. What we found out was we needed to tweak it so we felt that by the end of the song she was on a mission to get this boy. Everything, even a simple song, needs stakes. Nell and I are both Paul Simon fans and thought this could live in the same world as Graceland. It’s charming, sweet, and stylistically takes us back to Cady’s roots.
When John Clancy and I discussed the orchestra for this show, we knew it had to be big and traditional enough to sound like a 1950s pit, yet varied enough to pull off true rock ballads. He suggested two guitars and I thought, why? “Apex Predator” is the first song where you really hear why they’re necessary. Janis is the show’s anarchist and her songs are full of power and angst. She warns Cady not to be seduced into actually befriending Regina by turning Cady’s zoological vocabulary around on her. She uses the metaphor of Regina as the apex predator in the high school food chain. We wanted a song that had a primal four on the floor drive that would embrace the animal imagery that Casey Nicholaw wanted to choreograph. And we wanted an opportunity for Janis and Cady to vocally tear up the end of a song together.
“What’s Wrong With Me?”
Tina and Nell wanted to write a broken love song that would throw a light on the way girls felt about each other at this age. It was originally written without a character in mind, but as the book continued to develop it became clear that Gretchen should be the one to sing it about her feelings toward Regina. It’s a sweet, little waltz—a time signature not really associated with love songs, which may make it feel broken as well. It’s tiny but banks turns where it swells on a dime and then settles back into tiny. That felt right to us because it swings as quickly and extremely as a hurt teenager, in and out of timidness.
“Stupid With Love (Reprise)”
This is a simple reprise in which Aaron sings about how he, too, is stupid when it comes to dating, specifically Regina. This is the point where Cady actually makes the choice to pretend to be dumb in order to get a boy, so we felt we needed a little music here to highlight its importance.
This song starts as an anthem, a musical platform for Karen to speak about things she finds important. First, there should be world peace. Second, Halloween is the best holiday because it allows a young woman to be anything she wants to be. We loved the idea of letting Karen begin the song but start over once she goes down the wrong lyrical path. It's the perfect way to let the audience know that even though she's not as smart as the others, Karen is in control. She is in charge of her own moment in the spotlight. Of course from there it turns into a mega, electro dance number about empowerment.
“Someone Gets Hurt”
This is a song that has been through a few incarnations during workshops, on the road, and even back here in New York. Dramatically, it’s the moment when we see Regina turn on Cady and take Aaron back. We knew we needed a number that could top the song before it, “Sexy.” That song became such a showstopper that it was an even bigger challenge. What we decided was to write a song that gave Taylor the vocal gymnastics to wow the audience and at the same time, dramatically suck Aaron back into her fire. We went full-on John Barry for the musical scope of the number featuring strings, French horns, brass, and timpani, all held together with thundering guitars. Casey opened up the staging to become a stand-alone moment during which we’re all in Regina’s show. It’s a total blast.
Once again, we get the power of Janis combined with the fun of Damian. This song was going to need to bed a lot of plot twists so we knew it had to jump through many hoops to accommodate the action. Nell originally had the idea that since it was Janis trying to convince Cady to do something bad, it should sound fun, like a Barbie commercial. You know, let’s pull her apart but with a fun, jingly bottom to it. But that didn’t have enough drive. And it didn’t give Casey the kind of percussive energy he needed to power through this part of the act. So we went with an epic, rock feel. A sort of Jim Steinman, Streets of Fire thing. There’s an eternal quality I think in that sound. It feels like it’s a song that has been playing all night somewhere since 1956. Something that big felt like what a revenge party might feel like to us. Regina! Regina! Regina!
The Act 1 finale went through many revisions. The last and most significant was updating the lyrics to reflect Cady’s journey once it evolved after the out-of-town. The old title was “Justice,” but the updated one, “Fearless,” centers the song more on Cady. Regina’s entrance at the end of the song was added in the last few weeks of rehearsal in the theatre. The previous ending didn’t feel quite right. I actually dreamed that Regina came back in and reprised “Someone Gets Hurt”! We tried it the next day and it was exactly what we’d been searching for. Her entrance teases the upcoming revenge in Act 2 and reminds us what’s at stake for our main characters. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see Taylor belt again before the curtain comes down?
This was probably the most collaborative song of the album. Initially we had a song opening the second act called “Bossed Up” in which Cady relished her new power and popularity, and it was really fun... too fun, as it turns out. We really didn’t get the sense that she had taken a dark path. So we thought about seeing her transformation through the eyes of her friends to really feel the fallout from her bad decisions. In addition, we were getting so much feedback from D.C. that everyone loved Damian (as well they should, because Grey) and he maybe needed a number in the second act. Jeff was eager to do another big Broadway number, and we started playing around with that style. The first idea was a very ’20s-style dance craze, but that seemed too retro even for Damian. Then either Tina or Jeff found a rather fabulous video of Sammy Davis on Hullaballoo and we figured if that was on YouTube, then Damian had seen it and could sing a song like it. “Stop” seemed a natural thing to tell Cady to do—and Casey kept returning to it, because he said he could have a lot of fun with “stop”ping in the dance. Tina came up with all these amazing funny stories about bad decisions our characters had acted on without thinking. Initially we thought about not rhyming in the song at all, but I think I started to cry, so we found a nice structure where rhymes give way to unrhymed stories/jokes when people remember their lack of impulse control. As they remember their impulse control breaking down, the rhyme scheme also breaks down.
“What’s Wrong With Me (Reprise)”
There were several iterations of a song for Mrs. George, in order to have the mom’s point of view. Tina had a lovely passage in Bossypants” about “A Mother’s Prayer” that we kept coming back to. In very early stages, Mrs. George had a Kurt Weill-esque song, but as the structure of the show got tighter and clearer, Mrs. George’s moment moved from the first act to the second act, and real estate in second acts is very valuable, so there was a lot of debate about how to get her point of view across most movingly and yet economically. We were so fortunate to have Kerry Butler, whose take on Mrs. George was both funny and touching, and that made us want to keep something in this moment. Casey was the first one to wonder if Mrs. George hadn’t been a bit of a Gretchen in her youth and the song could be about how, even though you get chronologically older, you don’t outgrow some of your hangups: Maybe Mrs George couldn’t get respect from her daughter the same way Gretchen could never get it from the Queen Bee, and this was the genesis of using Gretchen’s ballad for Mrs. George. The lyric that starts Gretchen just seemed perfect for Ashley, too, and she always breaks your heart a little on “Is that my only appeal?” Casey also saw in his head that beautiful image of all the girls getting ready for the party and feeling their inadequacies. It’s always satisfying to hear the rueful laughter of moms and dads in the audience when Mrs. George sings “You’ll be worshipped for years / And then she’ll turn three.”
“Whose House Is This?”
This was always one of my favorite lyrics, because the title sounds like Kevin G is singing a great party anthem, but he’s also just wondering whose house he is trashing. I love Kevin G spitting fire about the party he’s actually at, because nobody observes parties better than people who don’t get invited to that many of them. Jeff found the most amazing sound for this song. When the ushers danced to this number in Washington, D.C., we took that as a very good sign. I also think Casey’s idea to put trampolines in the sofas was a stroke of genius. The dancers might say “evil genius,” but I’ll stick with genius.
“More Is Better”
I can never get over how pretty this tune is. Jeff Richmond, ladies and gentlemen. The lyric about “the air-conditioned air” came directly from a number of people who had moved from Kenya to the U.S. and overwhelmingly said one of the hardest things to get used to was our overuse of air conditioning. This is the Cady we haven’t seen since “Stupid With Love” and as Jeff brings back that style of music, the lyric tries to bring back the smart and funny Cady, making fun of her own ridiculous clothes with “In fairness, that could be how I dress now” —I think in that moment we see why Aaron likes her. She still has smarts and a sense of humor buried in all the Plastic, and it comes out now that she’s too drunk to keep up the pretense.
You always see guys get to lose their tempers and bring destruction and mayhem. That’s every action movie ever. Girls, especially girls who wear pink, are not often seen saying, “I want to watch the world burn” but when you’ve been humiliated, you feel that way whether you’re male or female.
The title is a riff on the Burn Book, but it’s also the darkest thing I could think of for her to say. Because female rage is no sweeter or nicer or sugar and spice-er than male rage, it’s just that young girls are encouraged to tamp it down and play nice. But when it comes out, you get flames and chaos and, thanks to Jeff, a heck of a tune. I still have a visceral memory of Taylor Louderman coming into a rehearsal room, quietly taking a sip of water from her water bottle and then wailing on this song, and I’ve never been the same person since. Side note: my five year-old daughter’s favorite piece of music in the show is the incredibly terrifying Regina theme that happens after “Hey Cady, how you like me now?” and right before the first “I wanna watch the world burn.” So watch out, world.
“I’d Rather Be Me”
This lyric came out in a rush, almost exactly as it is today. It was based most directly on points that Rosalind Wiseman and Rachel Simmons made in their books about female relational aggression. Tina and I went back to Rosalind’s work as we re-explored this scene, and as the mom of a five-year-old it was truly harrowing. I definitely wanted to somehow warn my daughter, but of course by the time this stuff happens to her she might not be listening to me. So writing this song was a way to get that lecture out there. It’s definitely a thought I wanted my daughter to hear, both about future girl friends and (god help us) future boyfriends. Jeff said, “I know what this is” immediately, and found this emotional song that rocks so hard. It sounded perfectly Janis to us, especially as sung by Barrett. At one point, when we were looking for cuts we took the “I don’t need their good opinions...” bridge out but then put it back in because, as Casey said, it cut the balls off the song. And you don’t want to cut the balls off your female-empowerment anthem.
“Do This Thing”
Kevin G was one of my favorite characters from the movie, and Tina made him even more fabulous in the musical. A number that featured him and the Mathletes seemed like the perfect 11 o’clock number, but it’s been through a number of iterations, including a Bollywood style number inspired by Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. It became clear the focus needed to be on Cady and not just the delightful Mathletes. When Jeff found this amazing riff on a marching band number, we never looked back. Hearing Erika and Kerry sing together on this is particularly thrilling, a) because it’s Erika and Kerry and b) because after all they’ve been through with the burn book, you want them to reconcile and only Norbury can teach her to “do your thing” and not care about high school nonsense. No one else has that distance.
“I See Stars”
The mark of a great musical is how many finales it’s willing to throw out to get to the right finale. I don’t know if that’s true, but I want it to catch on as a concept because we threw out so many finales. We originally had a lovely finale called “Here” with a lot of intricate rhymes to which I was deeply attached. It was a clever summing up of the plot and a very pretty tune, but while it wrapped up our story for the characters, it didn’t really have a bigger, more universal thought for the audience. The music was beautiful but a bit easygoing and mellow, and didn’t feel celebratory enough for a Spring Fling dance or anthemic enough to end our musical. We then tried a very energetic and dance-y song but that overcorrected too much and sounded like we were trying to create a Broadway Finale. Several band-aids were applied to it. It was restructured and re-choreographed. At this point we were in tech and we realized we wanted very much to throw out our finale and start again. This is not an easy thing to say to a director who is in tech, but with Casey, if it can be better, he wants it better now. He’s fearless that way. Tina and Jeff are, of course, masters at throwing something out if something better can be written, so we embarked on the exciting adventure of re-writing your finale in tech. It took a while to find the thought that we could build a more anthem-like song on. Tina had this wonderful joke for Sophie Kawachi about how when Regina was around, no one sees her. And the cast had sort of run with that —they all have extremely detailed high school backstories, by the way— and made Sophie a bit of an outcast, so that made the idea of seeing her important. That in turn reminded me of Cady’s reference to seeing stars from “More Is Better.” I had this vision of her singing “I See Stars” to our cast, and since our cast are all stars, that made sense. Jeff very subtly brought the “stars” music back from “More Is Better,” while creating a whole new and gorgeous tune. The first time we sang it through with the cast in the downstairs bar of the August Wilson theatre was very emotional, and it was what we had been missing.