You May Not Realize It, But Mean Girls Redefines the Idea of Pop Music on Broadway

Interview   You May Not Realize It, But Mean Girls Redefines the Idea of Pop Music on Broadway
 
Music director and arranger Mary-Mitchell Campbell fused theatrical storytelling with studio technology for a pop album that’s topping the Billboard charts.
Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Mary-Mitchell Campbell Marc J. Franklin

Rock came to Broadway with Hair and Hamilton brought hip-hop to the Great White Way, but the modern studio pop sound proved more elusive. Enter Mean Girls, perhaps the first score to fit on a Broadway or pop playlist. At the forefront of bringing that sound to Broadway is Mean Girls music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell.

Campbell considers her ability to straddle musical styles an especially important skill, one that made her ideally suited to lead the music department on Mean Girls. From its inception, the show aimed to combine musical theatre storytelling with a studio pop score (written by composer Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin) that could be “album-worthy.”

Achieving a pop sound in the theatre involved expertly crafted orchestrations by John Clancy that relied upon 14 live players as well as music production software Ableton, which provides the layered grooves and electronic music hits that would otherwise only be possible in a studio. The platform has recently become a popular tool on Broadway with shows such as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, and Frozen.

But grafting a pop sound onto musical theatre storytelling conventions is a different matter.

“The challenge to pop music is that it’s not as lyric-based, but storytelling is lyric-based,” Campbell says. “The goal is to make it sound authentically pop while also letting the lyrics come through so that the story is still being actively told.”

For Campbell, this makes tasks like penning vocal arrangements for Mean Girls’ 15-member ensemble a particular challenge, with a list of dramaturgical questions that have to be answered on top of writing within that pop style.

“It’s all about who is singing, why they’re singing, and what they’re singing about. How do you incorporate large groups of people that need to be onstage being participatory, even if it’s not their individual story that we’re telling?”

Even working within pop idioms, the answers to those questions were all straight out of the traditional musical theatre playbook. Carousel’s ensemble communally declaring that this was “A Real Nice Clambake” is not too far removed from Mean Girls’ high school partiers wondering “Whose House is This?.”

If sales of the Mean Girls cast album are an indicator, Campbell and her collaborators succeeded in making the score album-worthy: Mean Girls had the highest debut for a cast album on the Billboard 200 Chart since Dear Evan Hansen, and has already been released on vinyl. So fetch!

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