When self-described tomboy Mary Kate Morrissey walked into her audition for the musical adaptation of “Mean Girls,” begrudgingly wearing pink and a pair of heels, she wasn’t expecting to see Tina Fey.
Having dressed to mirror the production’s popular “plastic” lead Regina George, she also wasn’t expecting the comedy icon to insist she play the reclusive Janis Sarkisian on the show’s first national tour. “It was the craziest thing,” Morrissey says. “She’s a legend. I originally auditioned to replace Regina on Broadway and my agents told me, ‘Please, please, please go buy something pink and a pair of heels. If you wear your sneakers to this audition, it’s not going to be good. I was like, ‘Oh, fine,’ and I walk in and it’s Tina Fey. Right there.”
“Saturday Night Live” alum Fey, who wrote and appeared in the 2004 classic which examines the delights and dangers of high school cliques and camaraderie, was joined by the musical’s entire award-winning team. Fey oversaw its book and Nell Benjamin of “Legally Blonde” fame its lyrics, with Jeff Richmond from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” composing and Casey Nicholaw of “The Book of Mormon” directing.
“I do the material and Tina leans over to Casey Nicholaw,” Morrissey recalls, “and he goes, ‘Do you have the Janis packet?’ I didn’t and he asks, ‘Can you just cold read it?’ So I did – and then they offered me the part that day.”
If it took nerve to blindly audition for Janis in front of the character’s creator, Morrissey got it from defying gravity. Prior to originating the role on tour, she starred as another fan favorite social outcast of the stage: Elphaba in the national tour of “Wicked,” inspired by “The Wizard of Oz.”
Watermark spoke with Morrissey – who identifies as queer – about her authenticity on and offstage, from her days in Wicked Witch green to actually being not-so-mean. “Mean Girls” gets fetch in Florida at Tampa’s Straz Center Feb. 18-23 and Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center Feb. 25-March 1.
WATERMARK: Elphaba is quite a breakthrough role. What was it like leading the show across the nation?
MARY KATE MORRISSEY: It was awesome. It doesn’t matter what you do to prepare because that show will rock you no matter how strong you are. It was so unbelievably challenging … So coming to do “Mean Girls” is fun, because I already went through something that was kind of breaking. Our cast is very young, because we’re all playing teenagers, and so it’s cool to come back like, “I’ve been through this, let me help you.” I kind of feel like the tour mom in some ways.
How did it prepare you for “Mean Girls?”
When you come back with that green badge, when you’ve played that role, people look at you differently. People are like, “Oh, you’re a workhorse. You didn’t die and you’re still singing … we could probably trust you with any role; if you can do that you can do anything.”
What’s it been like introducing the show to audiences on tour?
It’s interesting, because everybody knows “Mean Girls” for the most part, right? It’s such an exciting thing to see young people dragging their parents to the theater, and the musical is updated in a lot of ways. I think people who have seen the movie come in like, “these are the characters that I know,” but the reason you recognize them is because you knew those characters in high school, too.
So I’m not playing the Janis from the movie. My Damien is not playing the Damien from the movie. Some of the lines are in there, but we’ve been given a lot of room to be authentic with what we’re doing. It feels like people are responding really well to that.
What makes it a must see for fans who are familiar with the movie and those who aren’t?
The musical is all of your favorite parts of the movie, just stuffed with musical theater. There’s every different genre of musical theater; there’s something for everybody in the musical theater world.
For people who haven’t seen the movie, I think they can understand the redemption story of it all. They can get a little bit of a window into what it’s like to be a teenager now, or what their kids might be going through, and hopefully empathize with them a little bit better or open up a conversation. Like, “how is this for you?” or “which character on stage are you in your classroom?” Also, everybody knows mean girls. Maybe not the movie, but everybody knows the mean girls in their life, or mean boys or mean people. I think that you can understand and enjoy the show either way.
What was it like cold reading for Janis in front of Tina Fey?
It was absolutely nuts! I thought they must not have thought too hard about it, but a couple weeks later, our music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell was like, “When Tina wants somebody that’s who she wants, and you kind of just go with it.” I was like, “oh, man, that makes me feel so good.”
Tina was there for rehearsals all the time, giving us notes and rewriting things for our cast that are different from the Broadway cast. She had a huge hand in a lot of what we did.
Why do you think the film translates so well into a musical?
The story of the “Mean Girls,” the plastics, the queen bees and wannabes, is so true in any part of life. I think that you can recognize the people on stage immediately; you know the story you are about to be told from your own life. It also has a redemption story to it, one of “just be nice to everybody. Stop bullying everybody … just try not to care what people think.”
Is that why you think it has resonated with the LGBTQ community?
It has for so many reasons. They get to see their experiences in high school, or what they would have wanted from their experiences in high school, and to see themselves in two starring roles. Our Damian sort of runs away with the show; he’s so incredibly lovable. They don’t really talk about Janis’ actual sexuality in the show, but there’s the situation where her friends say to her, “Hey, I think you’re gay and it’s making other people uncomfortable.”
I’ve been there for that. I feel like a lot of people have. I’m queer and I remember being in my first year of college and someone throwing a party asking my cousins, “Are you going to bring the lesbo with you?” I remember being so devastated by that in my formative, baby queer life. I think people see that and they’re like, “No, that’s not cool,” and that’s what the show says. It says let’s just live and let live right now. You get to see yourself on stage in a flattering way and not as a caricature, which I think is really cool in musical theater.
Some members of the LGBTQ community struggle with the word “queer,” what are your thoughts?
I think that queerness opens up to more people who don’t necessarily fit into one of the letters. They know, “I am not quite the G. I’m not quite the T, I’m not quite the B,” but know “I fall somewhere in there. I know because of my same-sex attraction and because of my falling in love with women or with trans people or gender nonbinary people.”
At least in my community and in sort of the young, radical New York City, the word has been lifted up; it’s so positive now. A lot of people identify as queer. It’s like a sexual identity signifier and a kind of political one. Right now I have the most amazing boyfriend on the planet, but you’d better believe that I’m still queer and I’m still fighting for queer rights. That’s always going to be a part of my platform.
Why is that so important for you?
People see a show and think that they know the person playing in it because they’ve just spent two and a half hours with them. It’s an amazing thing for them to go to social media and realize they’re actually a person. I think it can open some eyes, like a Southern mom’s in Birmingham, Alabama who maybe saw me play Elphaba and thought “Oh, she’s such a good singer,” and then sees that I’m queer. It can make people think about it in a different way. It gives different kinds of people access to knowing someone via social media so that they can empathize with them.
Have you had any meaningful interactions that stand out?
People will write letters and say “the way that you’re living has influenced my life,” or “now I feel like I can walk through the world and XYZ because you go up on stage and do it.” It can break your heart, so I feel a pretty big responsibility.
It’s been really eye opening to see how many people around the country don’t feel like they have a voice. Or that haven’t seen themselves on stage, or feel like they would not be able to do it because they don’t know anybody else like them who’s done it.
Do you think identifying as queer and having those experiences informs how you play characters like Elphaba and Janis?
Big time, yeah, for sure. You don’t need to have a love interest on stage to recognize queerness, or otherness, or sort of the way that you carry yourself. I think that’s something that I probably personally bring to these characters, but I also think a lot of times it’s written in; there are clues to it everywhere. I try to play just what’s on the page, but if I’m playing something, it’s going to probably be skewed a little more queer than not. (Laughs.)
Representation matters, right?
Absolutely! I try to make sure that it’s a part of everything I do.
“Mean Girls” plays at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 18-23 and the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 25-March 1. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit StrazCenter.org and DrPhillipsCenter.org.