NEW YORK — There are nights lately at the August Wilson Theater when the audience feels, to the creators of the musical comedy “Mean Girls,” as though it’s full of Gretchens.
Not people named Gretchen, that is, but rather people who identify with Gretchen, the most insecure member of the Plastics — the ruthless high school clique that rules the show, just as it rules the movie that inspired it. For those only vaguely familiar, Gretchen is the Plastic who keeps trying to make “fetch” happen.
But in the musical — with a book by Tina Fey, adapted from her 2004 screenplay, which in turn is inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” — Gretchen also gets a poignant solo called “What’s Wrong With Me?,” the kind of emotional moment that just doesn’t appear in the film. It was one of the first songs that the composer Jeff Richmond (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), who is married to Fey, and the lyricist Nell Benjamin (“Legally Blonde,” the musical) wrote for the show.
“We talked about it being a real opportunity to get inside not just that character’s vulnerability,” Fey said, “but also the vulnerability of so many people that age.”
Directed by the Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”) and opening April 8, the musical is Fey’s Broadway debut. Though she is not reprising her film role as the teacher Ms. Norbury, caretaker of the mathletes, the gang’s all here: the vicious queen bee Regina George (and her wannabe-cool mom, Mrs. George); the dim-bulb Karen; the artsy outsiders Janis and Damian; and Cady, the previously home-schooled central character, who’s not doing so well at navigating the social land mines of high school life.
Last November, when the musical made its premiere at the National Theater in Washington, The Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote that it felt “less like an artistic reinvention than a commercial knockoff.” Since then, its creators — who, with the exception of Fey and Richmond, did not know one another before the project began — have been busy with fixes, including five new songs.
“We ripped the show completely apart from D.C.,” Nicholaw said.
Early on a snowy evening in the second week of previews, they straggled into a steakhouse down the block from the theater, ordered coffee like the night owls that they are and talked about bringing “Mean Girls” to Broadway. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What are the pitfalls in adapting from screen to stage?
CASEY NICHOLAW: The biggest mistake is when you’re like, “We have to give the fans everything they want.” The fact that Tina didn’t want to do that was a huge relief to me. All of us inherently know what’s theatrical and what needs to be onstage.
JEFF RICHMOND: The biggest laugh lines are not the ones from the movie.
TINA FEY: Which makes sense, because laughs are usually generated by some element of surprise. It’s hard to get a laugh on something people know is coming.
NELL BENJAMIN: There are some people who are like, “Is there going to be a song called ‘Fetch’?” But if you think it through, how long do you want to sit in a song that’s based on one really good joke?
RICHMOND: We had a ridiculous idea for a moment where the entire curtain call was going to be a medley of the songs you thought would be in it, all the iconic moments. Like “Fetch” and “On Wednesdays We Wear Pink” and — what’s the one about sluts?
FEY, NICHOLAW, BENJAMIN: “Boo, You Whore.”
Q: How do you make a musical that pits girls against girls at a time when the culture is more excited about female unity than we’ve ever seen?
FEY: It is interesting. Since the film, we have ostensibly more female unity. But we also have trouble, right? We have white feminism and intersectional feminism. We have women not believing women. But it also does feel like the message of the show has expanded beyond just relational aggression among females, and it’s sort of about relational aggression, which has metastasized in many ways.
BENJAMIN: It’s not just girls being mean to girls. It’s whoever’s on top thinking it’s OK to push downhill.
Q: Right now, people are deeply impressed with the youth of the United States. Does that impact the show?
FEY: It does. We talk about it. We have a new song at the top of the second act called “Stop.” It’s sort of a comedic song about impulse control, and Nell and I are both so mindful about making sure that it’s not judging just girls for the choices they make. In some ways, it makes sense that our heroine by the end of the show is living her authentic life and being her best self — that she is teaching us.
(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Q: The musical feels kinder than the movie.
FEY: 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.
NICHOLAW: It sweetens everything up whether you want it to or not.
BENJAMIN: I can’t not like a person I’m going to write a song for.
NICHOLAW: We try to make sure that we undercut the sweet as much as we can.
BENJAMIN: And sneak the message in.
Q: Does having kids, maybe daughters in particular, affect your writing at all?
FEY: When I first got Rosalind to license the book to us, I sort of promised her that we would honor the intention, which was to be helpful. We’ve carried that through.
BENJAMIN: At 5, my daughter is already not on board for lectures. I have a lot that I want to say to her, but I cannot lecture her. In that respect it’s probably improved my writing, because I’m like, how am I going to work around a 5-year-old’s defenses? It better be funny.
Q: I wasn’t thinking of the messaging so much as the tenderness of the show. It made me wonder if you’re writing more tenderly.
RICHMOND: I think maybe.
FEY: A moment of the show that has finally come to work, something that we struggled with, was the way we use Mrs. George — just wanting to represent a mother and acknowledge that grown women are judgmental of each other, too, and that we as the audience look at this character in the first act like: Oh, she’s a clown. And just wanting to find a way to empathize with her. That was important to me especially, and that is, yes, probably because I am a mother now, and when I wrote the movie I was not.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)
Q: There’s a poster outside the theater with photos of your little awkward-slash-adorable adolescent selves. Nerds are very dear to the show’s heart, it seems.
FEY: It’s brought me so much joy, how much audiences have responded to the mathletes segment. I think embracing nerdery is what Cady does in a way. She embraces a part of herself that is not perceived to be cool. That’s at the core of the story.
RICHMOND: Rooting for the underdogs.
FEY: With the exception of Regina, every other character believes themselves to be an underdog in some way.
NICHOLAW: Everyone can relate to that, especially in high school. How I coped was doing musicals. I was a gay kid that couldn’t come out because it was 1979, and I didn’t fit in anywhere and I didn’t like sports and I was called all kinds of things. So I found theater, and I found where I did belong.
Q: Damian is like a valentine to every drama nerd who ever was.
RICHMOND: Yeah. There’s this meta thing going on, too, because in the movie, you don’t get to see Damian actually in that world. You know he cares about it, but now you see the Damian within a musical theater structure who loves musical theater.
BENJAMIN: And makes it happen wherever he goes.
Q: What difference to your writing comes from having the audience in the room with you?
FEY: It’s super helpful. You can take your own sense of humor as a guide for only so long, and then you’ve got to get it up in front of an audience. This is so much more alive, to have the chance every night to adjust things.
RICHMOND: It’s also so much more rewarding. When you’re doing television, you don’t see the people who are enjoying your thing. I find myself spending so much time watching people in the audience.
NICHOLAW: I spend a lot of time deciding if I’m going to tell that person to stop crinkling their wrapper.
RICHMOND: That’s why TV is better.
Q: Tina, you’re the Broadway newbie. After “Mean Girls,” will theater see more of you?
FEY: I would love to. Maybe we have to come up with something wholly original. But this process has been a joy. I know enough, just peripherally, to know that it could have been a bad arranged marriage, so I feel really very lucky.