From Movie to Musical 
(and sometimes back again)
    With the recent release of Mean Girls (the musical movie), there has been a deluge of articles and discourse around it, from  marketing fears to if we even need a new Mean Girls in 2024. But I am far more interested in the initial question of adaptation. Why bother turning a popular movie into a musical to begin with?
    For a producer, the answer is easy. MONEY! Musicals are expensive, especially to produce on Broadway, and these adaptations offer an alluring proposition: built in audience appeal. Think of films such as the aforementioned Mean Girls or Legally Blonde, which have devoted fans and MASSIVE cultural capital, propagated by memes, gifs, quotes, and Buzzfeed articles shared by millennials. The hope is that those fans will travel and shell out the cash for the chance to see their favorite movie in a new light. It makes sense. If you are putting literal tons of money into a production, money you need to make back, would you rather take a risk on an unproven new musical or produce an adaptation guaranteed to at least bring in fans, fans who might not otherwise see a musical? However, musical theatre is an art form, damn it! Not just a business, no matter what the current Broadway landscape implies. To truly understand and assess a movie to musical adaptation’s success, we must view it through a lens of cohesion, theme, and character. These categories definitively reveal why Mean Girls (the musical) falls short where others, notably Legally Blonde and Heathers: The Musical, succeed.
    The most bare-bones adaptations simply take the original script and graft on songs. Many times, these songs do not move the story forward or reveal character, because they were not necessary to begin with. This can result in a start-stop dynamic, with the gears crunching as the production switches back and forth from new to original material, a lack of cohesion. Writing any musical can be a struggle for cohesion, especially if you have a separate composer, lyricist, and librettist. Think of the many musicals with fabulous songs but wretched scenes. This is only exacerbated in Mean Girls. Tina Fey is a legendary comedy writer with a distinctive voice, from SNL to 30 Rock to her book Bossypants. Mean Girls is another jewel in her writing crown, and the original film’s success can be largely attributed to the humor and quoteability/memeability of her dialogue. The iconic quotes are too numerous to name: “fetch,” “ESPN,” “stab Caesar,” “is butter a carb?” and many, many more. In the musical, much of the original script is maintained, though one must wonder if the laughs come from humor or merely recognizing quotes we love. But unfortunately, the humor in the songs cannot compete with the original script. Nell Benjamin’s lyrics simply don’t hold up to Tina Fey’s quips and quotes (this is not to knock Benjamin’s skills, as her other work will be praised later, and her play The Explorer’s Club speaks to her comedic writing strengths). But what good is a musical comedy where the songs are outclassed by the script?
    There are other measures to consider. If one follows Marshall McLuhan’s theory that the medium is the message, then the very medium or art form of musical theatre must inform the story. Indeed, many of my favorite pieces of theatre are inherently about the art form, at least in one interpretation. So, when any artist is thinking of adapting a work from one medium to another, a valuable question is: how is the theme transformed or reinforced by the change in medium?
    Take Legally Blonde (the musical), adapted from the film of the same title. The story follows Elle Woods, blonde bombshell who follows her ex to Harvard Law School after he dumps her, citing that “he needs a Jackie not a Marilyn.” Elle is underestimated every step of the way, and spoiler alert: discovers her own self-worth and proves everyone wrong. A simple thematic interpretation is not to judge a book by its cover. To get a little more specific, the very skills and traits that make others underestimate you are your biggest strengths. Elle is belittled for her knowledge of fashion and beauty, but by the end of the film/musical, the case is only solved because of her haircare knowledge. This is why Legally Blonde makes sense as a musical. Just like Elle is underestimated but contains hidden depths, so is the entire medium of musical theatre. How many times has a musical been dismissed for being unserious, unimportant, too concerned with spectacle, frivolous. To underestimate musicals is to write off an entire medium. Just as Elle’s fashion and grooming knowledge is her strength in the courtroom, a musical’s frivolous qualities, spectacle, song, dance, are exactly what can allow a musical to offer biting satire (Urinetown or Book of Mormon), truthful tales of riveting emotion (The Last Five Years or Next to Normal), or maximalist reckonings with war and ruin (Les Miserables or Hamilton). In this way, the underestimation of Elle is paralleled to the underestimation of musical theatre, and hopefully by the end of a production, minds are changed for both.
    If one reason to adapt a film (or really any work) into a musical is for the thematic potential, the other comes with the chance for empathy and sincerity the form of musical offers. The artform of the musical offers a unique opportunity to get inside characters’ minds and hearts. When a character starts to sing, there is truth, there is inner desire. After all, that’s why many a musical theatre song can be categorized as an “I want” song. Even more sardonic offerings still have a core of genuine need, fear or desire. When we hear a character sing, we get a glimpse of their true self. Art has the potential to be an empathy machine (expanding from Roger Ebert’s conception of film as an empathy machine), and a musical helps lay that potential for empathy out in the open. This perspective is reflected in the views of the creators of Mean Girls (the musical). In an interview with the New York Times, Tina Fey, the original film’s author expressed, “’we talked about it being a real opportunity to get inside not just that character’s vulnerability… but also the vulnerability of so many people that age.’” When the interviewer posits, “’the musical feels kinder than the movie,’” Fey explains, “’I think that partly is the form, because once you hear people sing, then you’re in their hearts. I always felt empathy for Gretchen in the movie and for Cady, for all of them. But I think it’s because of music.’” Nell Benjamin, the lyricist elaborates, “’I can’t not like a person I’m going to write a song for.’” 
    Heathers: The Musical exemplifies the potential for increased empathy in a musical adaptation. No matter your opinions of the original film Heathers, empathy is not one of its strong suits. It’s darkly comedic, reveling in cynicism and death. The film Heathers isn’t too interested in feeling deeply for many of the characters, so in adapting the film into a musical, increased understanding of the characters is its primary advantage. While the original film starts with voiceover of Veronica explaining the school’s status quo, the musical starts with a theatre equivalent through direct address to the audience. We get to understand Veronica’s status quo, her thoughts, dreams, wishes, and self-image. While we certainly understand JD in the film, through the solo “Freeze Your Brain,” we gain a deeper understanding and attachment. He’s the same bad-boy, but the phrase “freeze your brain/suck on that straw/get lost in the pain/Happiness comes/when everything numbs,” neatly ties his worldview up in a few pithy seconds, but the act of singing elevates it from pure pith. By the time he’s singing about losing his mother, the audience is pulled in, like Veronica.   
    Through music, empathy is extended to characters callously thrown aside in the film. We hear more from Heather Chandler, Kurt, and Ram. Even though many of their songs are post-death and existing in the imagination of other characters, it still works to make them more sympathetic and dramatize the conflict in Veronica’s mind. Even characters that were portrayed sympathetically in the original, like Martha and Heather Macadamia Nut. Their already tragic characters are given more agency and understanding through their solos. Martha’s suicide attempt is no longer just a moment, but given a full song, “Kindergarten Boyfriend,” emphasizing the life that led her to the decision. Heather McNamara has human moments in the original, like the pills in the bathroom, but her character is fleshed out through the song “Life Boat,” allowing the audience to feel the pressures McNamara is living with.
    To a producer, the reasons for adapting a film to a musical might be focused on having a guaranteed audience to buy tickets or simplicity in pitching a story already proven to be a success. But there are more artistic and thoughtful approaches to adaptation: thematic and empathetic interpretation. This returns our attention back to the most recent of these adaptations: Mean Girls. The original film already operates with empathy. We don’t need to get inside Gretchen’s head the same way we need to get inside McNamara’s. Gretchen is already humanized through her “stab Caesar” speech, Karen through her ESPN/fist in mouth scene. Regina George is humanized in the original film in a way Heather Chandler is not in the original Heathers. Nothing is added to her character through her singing. 
    So does this mean Mean Girls (the musical) is unnecessary? That a transformative, valuable adaptation isn’t possible? No, I believe there is a version of Mean Girls that adapts the original film and adds something new by turning it into a musical. So much of the original film revolves around the idea of “plastic.” The head clique is named the Plastics, and Cady’s big climatic post-spring fling queen win speech focuses on the plastic tiara: “so why is everybody stressing over this thing? I mean it’s just plastic, it’s really just-“and she breaks the tiara. My adaptation would emphasize this plasticity through the musical genre most maligned as plasticky, superficial, meaningless: Pop! Right now, Mean Girls (the musical), sounds like every other generic contemporary musical, but I think a musical that instead aimed for pop perfection would add something substantial to the story and its themes. Hire Charli XCX or Katy Perry or Max Martin to write pop bangers. Transform the Plastics into a girl group like Destiny’s Child or Spice Girls to emphasize the power and influence they wield over the school. Model Aaron Samuels after Justin Timberlake or Harry Styles to explain his magnetic appeal to Regina and Cady. 
    I write all this because the musical as a medium deserves our respect. It is not some frivolous artform, and carbon copy film to musical adaptations that just drag and drop songs into the original story cheapen the whole of musical theatre. These film to stage adaptations may seem like empty cash-grabs, but by considering theme and deeper empathy, these adaptations can stand on their own as valuable works of art. Legally Blonde and Heathers: The Musical prove this is possible. Here’s hoping more musical adaptations follow their lead. 
Published May 8, 2024 | Edited by Chandler P. Jorgensen
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