The Longest Advertisement for a Broadway Musical – ‘Mean Girls’ (2024) Review

Let’s set the stage properly because none of the trailers have managed to do so. As much as I adore Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS album, besides the fact that “Get Him Back” has very little narrative connection to the plot of Mean Girls, the fact remains that absolutely no pop hit is featured in the show. And this is because all of the musical backing for the movie was already intrinsically baked in. For you see, even though none of the advertisements ever admitted it, Mean Girls (2024) is an adaptation of the Broadway musical adaption of the 2004 movie (which itself also turned out to be adapted on book, but we don’t need to go far back to note how inane this is). And outside of a musical note hidden in the A of the title card, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re walking into a modernization of the original, which in some ways it is, but in many more ways, it’s really not.

But before I can even talk about Mean Girls (2024), I have to talk about Mean Girls (2004), the collective of Tina Fey’s filmography, my own background as a musical theater kid, and two other musical movies I’ve seen in the month in order to lay the foundation for my critique, so we got a lot of ground to cover.

The original Mean Girls is a touchstone of early 2000s teen comedy. A veritable fountain of memes between “stop trying to make fetch happen” and the “It’s October 3rd,” the Lindsay Lohan led comedy was funny, fast paced, and memorable. It’s quick wit and high jokes per minute, interspersed with poignant character interactions that textured some depth, perfectly encapsulated the energy of the era. At the time of viewing, was I maybe just a little aggrieved by the over the top depiction of nerdity? Probably, but Mean Girls heightened sense of extreme social cliques were equal opportunity at the shots it took at all the different tables at lunch. It remains a movie that I remember fondly and evidence that Tina Fey’s writing is capable of drawing several laughs.

That said, Tina Fey’s filmography is also one with a couple question marks specifically when it comes to matters of race. I enjoyed the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schdmit, but I also very much remember giving up on the show after the yellow face that occurred during the second season (and in hindsight, probably should have given up on the red fact that occurred during the first season). To say minimal about the blackface that occurred during several episodes of 30 Rock (and to Fey’s credit, those episodes have been removed from streaming services). It’s something that sat in the back of my mind as I watched Mean Girls, and now I hope it sits in the back of your mind as you continue to read.

Now, I am a musical theater kid. I got introduced to the wonderful world of stage antics after being recruited to play Bun Foo in my high school’s presentation of Thoroughly Modern Millie (you can read about that in more detail here), and as any musical theater kid will tell you, the joy of musical theater is the embracing of the dramatics. The musical elements are not meant to be grounded reality, it is meant to uplift reality, raise emotions the only way a booming voice and instrumental accompaniment can do. The interplay of lyrics and dance is meant to be a celebration, and when the audience takes their seat and the opening number begins drumming along, there is no framing, there is no sign post. They just break out into song and carry you to a weird place.

And there are no better examples of this than Dicks: The Musical and lore-accurate, Bollywood adjacent The Archies. The former is a completely profane rift on The Parent Trap that is completely unhinged. The latter is a surprisingly insightful reinterpretation of the Archie characters that manages to be true to the source material while modifying it in specific ways to work with their particular demographic. And both of these musicals are proud to be musicals. The songs are catchy, the energy constantly ebb and flowing, and crucially everything feels deliberate and choreographed to a specific point. And it’s truly unfortunate for Mean Girls that these musicals were on my mind before even stepping to the theater because as a musical theater kid and critic, I know what a good movie musical movie can achieve.

So, after 700 odd words about everything but the movie I’m supposed to be reviewing, here is the one line summary of my Mean Girls (2024) experience: I’ve never seen a movie so clearly embarrassed of the fact that it is a musical.

I have never seen the stage adaptation, so I have no context of what the original musical was like. After watching Mean Girls, I will say that I would like to watch the musical because I think the musical probably is proud of the fact that it is participating in a long legacy of marrying song with storytelling.

Mean Girls opens with Janis and Damian setting up a phone to record themselves singing the opening. Conceptually, I understand why this is happening. TikTok and social media are intrinsic to high school culture, and it acts as a suitable framing device. But it is in fact a framing device. It is a signpost to the viewer that says “hey, there’s going to be singing, but it’s going to make sense within the context of the story.” And this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except for the fact that they arbitrarily decide to use social media for their numbers, and that move itself presents the imagine spots of musical numbers as having some sort of tangible reverb into the real world. Many times, musicals make false starts, the ensemble interacting with the orchestra, but in Mean Girls, it feels less like a tongue and cheek reference to genre conventions, and more of actively trying to explain to the audience who didn’t know they were walking into a musical that there was going to be music; it certainly doesn’t help that at least everyone had at least one song where they were visibly confused by someone else breaking out in song.

When the music was playing, I mostly enjoyed what I saw. The songs were catchy, and I’m adding at least one of the tracks to my playlists because the songs that good. I think that’s a bit more to the credit of the original Broadway composers, but that’s neither here nor there. The problem is that while the vocal performances were great, what is happening on the screen varied wildly from Hollywood level intentionality to high school level going off vibes. When the choreography was tight, the stylized presentation of the high school worked. But there were still several times where it felt like there was no direction, and yes, the scenes were meant to be chaotic, but there is a difference between directed chaos and just letting everyone vaguely do their own thing. And the visual vocabulary of each song tended to switch wildly, resulting in a lack of cohesion. Rather than being unique markers to exemplify anything particular, the stylization became more of a distraction of “why would you do that.” But if anything could elevate it, it was the cast.

I liked everyone. I thought Angourie Rice played Cady’s transformation from new girl to plastique to grounded person exceedingly well. Renee Rap’s Regina George is probably the best interpretation of such a venomous character in existence with a wonderfully full voice that had my theater in complete silence. And Auli’i Cravalho as Janis completely stole every scene she was in. And this is not surprising given that Auli’i has been showing ever since Moana, but my god, she is a triple threat between her singing, comedic timing, and ability to turn serious at the drop of a dime. It certainly helped that her big solo managed to showcase all three of these facts in a glorious three-minute song. 

But I still can’t get over the fact that the musical elements of a movie musical constantly were downplayed. The acting interludes between musical numbers were fine, but it felt more like a dilution of the original movie rather than a meaningful modernization. It’s kinda hard to appreciate a movie when it keeps trying to wink-wink nudge you into remembering how much you loved the source rather than getting it to love it while paying homage to the source. And the end product is just a series of unremarkable interstitials.

And there’s also some lingering thoughts about some of the unconscious bias that exists within Tina Fey’s screenplay and the fact that while some of the characters had been updated for the better, some of the caricatures were not updated in the slightest resulting in a weird status quo. I don’t think any of it was intentional or malicious, but it still lingers in the back of my head like a nagging question of “how could this have been different.”

All in all, my biggest takeaway from Mean Girls (2024) was that I really wanted to see the musical. A musical musical, fully embracing the joys of the medium and not moderately scared of audiences who don’t usually partake. Something that is willing to be honest with the audience and itself about the vision and the story. And for that, I can thank Mean Girls for introducing me to something new and reminding me that 20 years is probably the sweet spot for a remake, but maybe an extra couple years would have helped.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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