Erika Henningsen was just a year out of the University of Michigan when she made her Broadway debut as Fantine in the 2015 revival of Les Miserables. Now, she’s back in high school for a production that has her graduating to both star status and critical acclaim: In the role that put Lindsay Lohan at the top of Hollywood’s hot list circa early 2000s, Henningsen plays Cady Heron, the sweet kid who transforms into one of the terrors who give Mean Girls its title.
As the lead actress in an ensemble of fresh faces, energetic dancers and top-notch belters, the 25-year-old Henningsen has been an eyewitness to the development of Mean Girls from beloved cult film to crowd-pleasing Broadway musical, with book writer Tina Fey rewriting and stage-tuning well-remembered elements from the 2004 movie – from pink Wednesdays to a Danny DeVito reference that still gets laughs – while adding updates about social media cruelty (the show’s about high schoolers, after all) and even a Trump joke or two.
I spoke with Henningsen about Mean Girls – directed by Casey Nicholaw, with Fey’s book, Jeff Richmond’s music and Nell Benjamin’s lyrics – about living the Broadway dream, working with Fey, encountering (or not) Lohan and the inevitable Tony Award buzz. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Deadline: So, you must be floating right now. Do you read reviews?
Erika Henningsen: Yeah, I’m floating. That’s a really good word for it. It’s like the adrenaline hasn’t quite left my body yet.
There are some reviews I let myself read because I thought, I’m going to read The New York Times because I’ve been reading those since I was 15, so I read that one, and then I just heard from family and friends that the overwhelming response is positive. Everybody’s going to have certain things that maybe they don’t love, but the nice thing is when we do the show we can just tell because the audience will laugh and they applaud and you can tell when you have a show that even if there are things that people didn’t specifically respond to, that the overarching product is positive and people are happy to be at that production every night.
Deadline: Give us a brief summary of how this show came about for you.
Henningsen: About a year ago my agent texted me two words – “Mean Girls”. And I just wrote back, what? And he’s, like, give me a call. I had no idea that it was in the works. They kept it under wraps that they were working on developing a musical of Mean Girls, and as soon as he said that I just thought, Oh my gosh, I must, I must be in this. I wanted to be in this so bad. And not just because of the team attached to it – Casey and Tina and Nell and Jeff – but I had grown up listening to a lot of Nell’s shows, and when you add Tina Fey into the mix, it’s kind of hard to just say, Oh, if I don’t get the job it’ll be okay.
The first round I didn’t get, when they were in lab development, and then it came back on the table a couple months later. The big thing I’ve taken away from that whole audition process: It’s not over ‘til it’s over.
Deadline: There are people who know the movie by heart. Were you a fan?
Henningsen: It came out in 2004, so I was 12, approaching 13, and I was not allowed to watch PG-13 movies. So I didn’t get to see Mean Girls in theaters, but when it came out on DVD my sisters and I watched it and I just remember thinking like, This is cool, this is an important thing to watch and this is fun. I would put it in my laptop in the morning as I got ready for school. So when I went back to revisit the movie, just from those two years of listening to it and watching it I realized I knew the whole soundtrack by heart, I knew scenes verbatim without even really sitting down and thinking about it. It had just become this sort of fabric of lingo and familiar characters that I knew from those teenage years.
I think that’s how a lot of people feel about it. It was the movie you watch at sleepovers, the movie you would put on on a Saturday night. So I was really familiar with the material, but what was exciting when we started working on the script is that they had updated it so much. The plot was familiar but their interpretation was really fresh and new and that was exciting.
Deadline: Tell me about the updates. How is Mean Girls relevant today with the #MeToo movement?
Henningsen: There were certainly two updates that I saw. Cady in the movie was sort of the lens through which we see the story, and it’s easier to do that in film because you have the elements of close-ups and voiceovers. We don’t have that in live theater, so they created a Cady that was a bit more on the balls of her feet. She was a bit more eager than the Cady in the film simply because you have to have somebody propelling the story who’s a bit more active than they are necessarily in film. So that was sort of part one.
And then what Tina created, whether or not we were aware that this female movement was going to take off as the show was coming to fruition, all sort of coalesced at the same time. So the biggest message that has changed, I think, from the movie is that the movie sort of ends with this apology. The Cady Heron character apologizes to the people that she’s wronged.
But in (the musical) there’s a wonderful moment between Cady and Regina [the villainous top Mean Girl played by Taylor Louderman] where we learn that you don’t have to apologize for your strength or your individuality. You have the right to inhabit your womanhood and that strength, but it should never be used to undermine somebody else.
So the idea this time is that women are stronger together, and not only should we reach out to one another and rely on one another as a group, we more than likely will be able to take steps forward into sort of undoing the damage that has been done in the past. So that’s been a really exciting life imitating art and art imitating life that has truly just even in the last couple months come to the forefront. It’s been wonderful to be a part of a show that has these messages.
Deadline: Let’s talk about working with Tina Fey. How much interaction did you have with her day to day?
Henningsen: I think it surprises people to hear that she was there every day, but it’s not surprising to us anymore because it was just such a given that Tina was going to be in the rehearsal room. She was there each day, constantly, constantly rewriting, editing. My favorite thing was to watch the run throughs. If you looked over at Tina sitting behind the table at any moment, her mouth would be moving because she was either going over new lines in her head or rewording things to figure out what sounded better, what fit (the actors’) individual habits better.
She’s wonderful because she has no ego when it comes to her writing. She would never say like Oh, well, you’re doing it wrong. She would come back with a new line and you’d say, Yeah, I think this matches my sensibility better. So her ability to write quickly and her ability to write with each of us in mind is the greatest gift that you can ever have as an actor. She created parts that were tailor-made to the strengths of all of us.
I mean, you’ve seen the show, it has this principle cast of 10 people, so she’s writing for 10 different voices and they all need to be distinct, and she does that so well because I think her brain is always working on overdrive on How can I make this better, how can I make this land in a stronger way? And sometimes she would just come up and say Well, what do you think you would say here? And then would come back 10 minutes later and you would see your words in the script, and that collaboration was really wonderful. It doesn’t really happen in a room in such a high pressure situation like this.
Deadline: I’ll put you on the spot and ask for an example.
Henningsen: It’s one of my favorite scenes that I get to do in the show. Cady gives sort of a speech to the students, it’s the last part of the show. And for a long time we had a version of it and we really needed to change it but we were waiting for all the other puzzle pieces of the production to fall into place. So Tina kept saying, I need to see everything laid out before we figure out what we want to say in this last moment.
And we were in maybe our second, third week of previews and everything was about to be frozen. And I was sitting in the audience with her and Casey and she just said to me, Well, what do you think Cady would say here? And I just said, We’ve seen her journey and we realize that the biggest mistake she made was thinking that she has to change herself to be appealing to the Plastics, and I think the lesson she comes to learn at the end is that you are enough as you are.
And Tina went away and those words have made their way into the final speech that Cady gives, and it was just a wonderful moment because I think Tina realized the person who has been living with this character has an idea of what Cady would say, and then to see Tina’s ability to create the words from that was a really special moment. The last puzzle pieces had come into place.
Deadline: Have you heard from Lindsay Lohan? Do you expect to? I’m curious if she’s seen this Mean Girls.
Henningsen: Oh, no, I haven’t. I know she wants to see it. I get so nervous when I know people are in the audience, and if she wanted to come [on a particular night] I probably wouldn’t know because our company management knows [not to tell me]. Taylor, the wonderful actress who plays Regina, and I are both, like, Don’t tell us what people are here.
Deadline: Are you letting yourself think about Tony Award nominations at all?
Henningsen: You know, I’m letting myself think about it in terms of the show. I really want this show to be nominated, I want it so much, mainly because I work with these people every day and I see how much effort it took to create this musical, this non-stop two and a half hours of energy. It takes so much work from everybody and it takes so much passion and heart from our creative team, from our design team, from the whole ensemble, like I just want the entire show to be rewarded.
Deadline: Have you had any interactions with Lorne Michaels? At the performance I was at I saw him standing in the back with that same expression that you see on Saturday Night Live, that same sort of inscrutable look.
Henningsen: That’s so funny that you mention that. We were lucky to go see SNL before our rehearsals started again, when Will Ferrell was hosting. I know exactly what look you’re talking about.
Lorne is so wonderful and really I think he’s just really happy to see how much joy we all are having to be a part of this. I’ll never forget, he said something to me at our opening in Washington D.C. He said, Are you going to stay with it? And I looked at him like, Lorne, what else would I be doing? Best job in the world. It was so funny to me. I think he’s just happy that Tina, who he loves and admires and respects, that this dream of hers has come to fruition and that we all want to be a part of it so badly and are so happy to be here. So hearing Are you going to stay?, I just thought Oh, they’re going to have to kick me out the door.
The Tony Awards will be telecast live by CBS June 10, beginning at 8 PM ET.