'Mean Girls' Composers on Making Tina Fey's Cult Favorite Into a Hit Musical

Joan Marcus
Jeff Richmond, Tina Fey and Nell Benjamin.

Five years ago, composer Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin started their partnership writing the score for the new musical of Tina Fey's Mean Girls. At the time, Richmond — who's best known for writing music for Saturday Night Live30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and who met Fey, now his wife, at Chicago's Second City comedy troupe — thought, "Oh, we'll write fast -- we do comedy!" Benjamin, who wrote the lyrics for Legally Blonde, knew better: On that show, her team joked, "it took us longer than law school to write this musical about law school." 

Their years of work paid off: Richmond and Benjamin recently earned a Tony nomination for Best Original Score, one of the show's 12 nods (it's tied with SpongeBob SquarePants for the most this year), and the Mean Girls original cast recording is out today (May 20) digitally on Atlantic Records. For Atlantic, it's the latest in a growing series of super-successful Broadway musical recordings that includes Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. "We're hyper-selective when deciding what Broadway musicals we work with," says Atlantic president of A&R Pete Ganbarg. "As someone who has two daughters who quote Mean Girls like I quote The Godfather, I was immediately intrigued when I heard that it was becoming a musical. I'm a big fan of Nell Benjamin's lyrics and Jeff Richmond's music. Add Tina Fey's book and it was a no-brainer for us."  

With a few weeks to go before the Tony Awards, Richmond and Benjamin spoke to Billboard about why their collaboration gels, working with Fey, and why there's no "fetch" song in the show.

Who came onto the project first? How did the pairing up of you two happen?

Jeff Richmond: It actually started with Tina and I having conversation about maybe writing a musical someday – we both love going to the theater and went to school in theater and decided to try to to get rights to the movie. When we decided to move forward, we looked for a lyricist. Tina and I both write lyrics for television, but it seemed like we should have a real seasoned pro. Nell is very good at finding the joke, a funny phrase, and working toward it so we know what the punch line is, which Tina and I consider a plus. If Tina and I come up with a very raw idea, we’ll fill out a working lyric, and it’ll be funny, but then Nell will take it and know how to really repurpose it and reimagine it and sculpt it into something that feels like a classic Broadway lyric that still has pointed wit. She’s good at adapting other people’s jokes into lyrical choices.  

Jeff, had you ever had the experience of working with a lyricist before? How did you judge whether you and Nell would work well together? 

Richmond: I’m used to working with a lot of other lyricists anyway, working at SNL and Second City and 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt -- comedy writers are always writing lyrics and your job is to manhandle them into songs and styles. But they know what’s funny more than what’s poetry. So when we started to look around for the perfect Broadway companion, Nell was the first one to come to the surface like, yeah, she’s smart and funny and feels like a fit.

Nell Benjamin: I was obviously enthused about it. We had a meeting and it was just a very cool exciting thing, to have the little fan girl scream in my head about being there with the two of them, but Jeff’s work on Kimmy and 30 Rock....I mean, he wrote "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" -- it’s genius! To work on a comedy show with someone who knows how to deliver comedy as well as emotional depth in song? He can do both while playing piano with one hand behind his back.

Richmond: It’s a challenge, but you make do.

In what ways have you found you're on the same wavelength?

Benjamin: [Richmond and Fey], coming from improv, it’s about getting as many of the great ideas you have out there. And there were songs that made us laugh a lot but didn’t eventually make it into the show. But the ability to write [and] be prepared to throw it out and start again, that’s hard to find. 

Richmond: None of us – Tina, Nell, or myself – have this precious viewpoint. Everything feels like we’ll write it, get it out there, see if it feels like it’s holding together at all, and if it doesn’t, or it’s not funny or emotional, throw it out and start again.

Benjamin: It’s a huge advantage, and a rarity, in musicals. People are more inclined to fall in love with what you write -- you have more time than in TV, just enough time to get in trouble, to get stuck on something.

Nell, you’d previously worked on Legally Blonde, which I have to think is somewhat of an analogous experience, turning a very smartly funny movie into a musical successfully. Did you learn things working on that show that related directly to what you and Jeff had to do?

Benjamin: With Blonde, we were in a similar situation, with a movie that actually meant something to people. You had to walk this line of wanting to make the people who love the movie very happy but not make everyone think, well, we could just sit it at home and watch it. It has to be different [from the movie] but in the spirit of it. Mean Girls would have been that to the nth degree in terms of the fandom. So finding that line between being respectful to the tone of the original and wanting to bring more to it and change it and see where it is today was very helpful, especially since Tina and Jeff were so willing to move the show into today. I don’t think you guys ever said, "Let’s just do this onstage for the money."

When you’re translating a film into a musical, are there certain rules you have to set for yourselves as to what to do and not do? I noticed there really aren’t any numbers based around a punchline, for instance. There’s no number all about the word “fetch.”

Benjamin: Nooooo, 'cause that would be awful!

Richmond: If we had made any move like that, it would take the musical into camp really quickly, as opposed to it finding its own way with these characters' emotions. We didn’t want to do a big "fetch" number, because we're not just putting in what you would expect it to be as the movie onstage. It’s hopefully going to be bigger, and more emotional, and even funnier than that. There are jokes that play so well in the context of the musical onstage, even better I think than if they’d been in a movie.

Benjamin: To make a joke about a joke made in the film would be more of a sketch, like, "Oh, we all know 'fetch' was in the movie, let’s sing about it!" But that's not helping the characters onstage. At that point, you’re showing off as a writer, not writing for a character.

Richmond: There’s so little real estate for songs in a show, you better be picking wisely when you’re writing them out. You can only get so many in! And especially when Tina Fey is writing the book, you want to leave plenty of room for jokes and wit and observations.

Benjamin: It’s frankly nerve-wracking — the jokes are so good in the scene, you don’t want people to be like, "Ugh, here comes a song." We had to ask, how can we bring it up a level? 

How involved was Tina in shaping the musical numbers?

Richmond: She was quite involved. We’d be outlining the way particular parts of each act would go, telling the story, and we knew what she wanted to accomplish with the book, which helped us know what to address in song. She’s also very good about saying, "It would be nice to have a song that feels like it’s from this character’s point of view, because what they’re thinking at this point is thematic to a lot of things that are happening." I guess we’re all pretty good at that, but Tina was very close to that.

Benjamin: In musical theater, a moment defines a song first. It’s ideal to have whoever's writing the book come in and say, "What do you think of this as a song moment?" And when it’s Tina, it’s just that much better. It was very collaborative.

What about Mean Girls as a movie did you want to come through in the sound and feel of the songs?

Richmond: I think we talked early on about how, because this is a show set in high school and all these kids are representing different cliques, they shouldn’t all be singing from the same musical vocabulary, and to be honest to who they were, the styles would reflect what that was. Damian sings in a classic Broadway production number style, flashy and sassy. Regina sings harder-edged rock and roll, even like a Bond villain. I remember talking forever about the first time Regina would sing and what that was going to be. She’s not singing about herself – she’s singing the words that Damian would be singing about her.

Benjamin: Truly powerful people don’t have to tell you themselves how powerful they are. That’s where "Meet the Plastics" really gelled. She’s performing her image to the school. Her second song is the same thing, except it’s her taking the initiative – she knows her reputation, and she’s smart enough to play with it.

Richmond: Everyone has a different kind of sound. Regina would never want to sing the same kind of song Janice would – she wouldn’t lower herself to sing whatever that was. 

Benjamin: I love the fact that you’ve got Janice and Damian, who are like narrators, but Damian’s language is very musical theater, and Janice is just as performative but she’s not going to a ticket lottery – she’s got more of a punk sensibility. To me it feels very expressive of character, which I love -- it doesn’t date it, it doesn’t feel like parody. It felt right. That’s part of why I think the score drives the show so well. You don’t feel like, "Oh, this is the 11 o'clock power number." We’ve tried to do the moment the way the character would hear it in their head.

Richmond: We weren’t trying to invent anything other than, "This is the true sound these people would emit in a musical."