“What’d you think?” I asked my granddaughters as we made our way out of the theater. We had just seen Mean Girls on Broadway, had stood with the obligatory standing ovations, were still engulfed in the screaming appreciation from the audience. Typical Saturday on Broadway.
I wondered if my companions shared the enthusiasm.
“Well, it was good,” the younger one, who is nearly nine, proclaimed without a trace of self-consciousness. “I mean, the story was great. But what I didn’t like was there was just too much singing. Really loud singing.”
The kid’s got a future in theater criticism. She is the same granddaughter who, at age 4, left Lincoln Center declaring, in her loudest outdoor voice, that the children’s performance of the NYC Ballet we’d just attended was “. . . the worst show I have ever seen.” She was right then, and she’s right now.
The ballet was off the day we went; the choices seemed odd for a program targeting small children. And frankly, Mean Girls does have way too much mediocre music that is more shouted than sung. I kept wishing I could tell the Sound Supervisor that the balance was off, the overall effect totality deafening.
Also the show is preachy. Deliberately so. As the two misfit greeters tell us at open, “It’s a cautionary tale. . . . “ They ask, “How far would you go to be popular and hot? Would you resist temptation? You would not.” Clearly, we are here to be taught a lesson.
Normally, such a messianic tone would irritate me. Especially since I would never have chosen this particular experience had there been affordable tickets available for anything else a pair of preteenagers might like. Yet I found myself softening a bit as it coursed its way through, highlighting the best and worst in teenage girls, illuminating what they all need to know about themselves. In the end, I found myself tearing up.
Everyone in this made-up world learns their lesson. All the girls, every one a mean girl in one way or another, live happily ever after in the bosom of acceptance and empowerment. Why was there no Tina Fey Girl Power script for my generation?
How much different so many of our lives would have been – would be – were we encouraged to love ourselves, to seek success, to nurture one another. The messages we received sought to obliterate our self-esteem, our ingenuity, our independence. Some girls were lucky enough to have mothers who were unafraid to encourage them to defy the system, but for most of us, defiance meant dishonor. Mothers were embarrassed, fathers were angry, and teachers, like later employers, withheld the markers of success. We learned that we needed to play the game by rules the men made, and we needed to have their favor, which meant we were in competition with one another. No one undermined women more thoroughly than women.
Things haven’t changed much since then, which is why Mean Girls is so potent. Too many women still settle for second best, still acquiesce to standards that are beneath them, still seek to be whatever they think men want them to be, still undermine one another.
Thank goodness this vibrant musical is here to remind us (over and over) that 1) “It’s all fine till someone gets hurt,” and 2) “We’re all stars. . . . “
Unfortunately, as my pint-sized reviewer asserted, “They made music out of every little idea, even when there was almost no idea there. And the music wasn’t even that good.”
The songs are unmemorable – not one stuck in my head and had me humming my way out of the theater. Moreover, neither of the grandkids, both veterans of several school musical productions, who know everything on Spotify and the entire score of Hamilton backward and forward, left singing a single ditty.
Nowhere in this play is there a shred of subtlety. The instruments blare. The voices scream, even when they could whisper. The lyrics are simplistic, lacking grace. No poetry. Every message, every image is so emblazoned in neon it feels disingenuous.
Worst of all, it’s rarely funny. Tina Fey’s voice reading the “Turn off your cellphone” address just before curtain is the funniest thing in the show.
And yet, I warmed to the play. A little. And the youngsters in the audience – most of them girls – loved it. At the stage door afterward, 52nd Street throbbed with the excitement of well over a hundred females aged 6-20, waiting in the cold, screaming as each of the actors emerged from the theater, begging for autographs and selfies.
As my granddaughter said. It was pretty good.
Story by Tina Fey Music by Jeff Richmond Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Now playing at the August Wilson Theater, 245 W. 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019