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‘Mean Girls’ in Chicago: How the second city is making ‘fetch’ happen

Maggie Mitchell, director and playwright of “Mean Girlz Parody,” which ran in Chicago’s Second City Theatre in October, was about to take a picture of her cast when something in the background stopped her — Tina Fey’s headshot. 

Fey, a scriptwriter, director and actor, who kicked off her theatrical career at The Second City, wrote the original “Mean Girls,” which Mitchell, a fellow scriptwriter, director and actor, parodied in that same space. 

“[This] was definitely a distinct moment,” Mitchell said. “The table where we were sitting at just happened to be directly in front of Tina Fey’s headshot. … It made me more present in the moment. … None of this would be happening right now if she hadn’t paved the way, quite literally written the script.”

Maggie Mitchell, playwright and director of “Mean Girlz Parody,” put on the play in the same place that Tina Fey, who wrote its namesake, began her career. | Jimi Hargraves

Set in Chicago, Fey’s movie, “Mean Girls,” is celebrating its 15th anniversary during 2019, and the city’s celebrations span throughout the year and beyond. With fan parties and theatrical performances like “Mean Girls: The Musical,” the Chicago area is celebrating the 2004 classic its own ways. 

The original “Mean Girls” script follows Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), a high school student who transfers from homeschool in Africa to North Shore High School in Evanston, Illinois. There, she meets two friends, Janice Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian Leigh (Daniel Franzese), who encourage her to make friends with and spy on The Plastics, or the “mean girls” — Regina George (Rachel McAdams), Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried). 

As Heron grows into her role as a faux-Plastic, she becomes the very apex predator — as the musical calls George — that she set out to study. 

The Chicago area was home to Fey, screenwriter of the movie and scriptwriter of the Broadway musical, during her early years as an actor. With her start at The Second City, she set the world of “Mean Girls” in the Chicago suburb Evanston. 

Though the setting was in the fictional North Shore High School, Evanston Township High School is often heralded as the “Mean Girls” school, as evidenced by news organizations like The Daily Northwestern and the Chicago Tribune covering the school’s connection to the movie. 

But because of Fey’s work at The Second City, Evanston isn’t the only connection that Chicago has to the movie. 

The Second City helped Fey snag her spot as a writer on Saturday Night Live, but it is also where she met her husband Jeff Richmond, who wrote the score for the musical, so it is fitting that “Mean Girlz Parody” ran in this theatre. 

However, Mitchell said the anniversary year and the Broadway musical coming to Chicago this December had little to do with her decision to run the show this year — though they were convenient. 

“The timing was just on our side. … If we were ever going to do it, now would be the time,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also said Fey’s script was easy to work with and extract more comedy from. Though she said some details like fat jokes did not age well, “Mean Girls” still holds gems of comedy that may never grow old — for instance, making “fetch” happen.

Wieners, George’s second-in-command, continually tries to make phrases like, “That’s so fetch!” part of her and everyone else’s vocabulary. Due to copyright laws, Mitchell strayed from “making fetch happen” and made “detch” and “Gretch” happen instead. 

“One of the things that seemed to play really well was we didn’t actually ever use the word ‘fetch,’” Mitchell said. “But the character of Gretchen, now named Gretch, … kept saying anything other than that, … so there was a line that was like, ‘Oh that’s so detch.’”

But “Mean Girlz Parody” isn’t the only play to run in Chicago with nods to “Mean Girls.” “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” by Jocelyn Bioh will run at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre Saturday, March 7 through Sunday, April 12, 2020. Although it falls outside of the “Mean Girls” anniversary year, it still presents certain homages to its namesake.

While “School Girls” is not based on “Mean Girls,” they share connected names and motifs in that one of the main characters is new to school and seeking the attention of her peers. 

“There is something universal about the experience of being at school and vying for status with your schoolmates,” said Goodman Theatre’s resident dramaturg Neena Arndt in an email. “One of the biggest differences [between the play and the movie] is that the play deals with a culture that many audience members might not be familiar with — so they can see universal themes play out while also learning a bit about a different culture.”

Fans outside of the theatrical community are celebrating “Mean Girls” with events like fan parties, one of which was held in Chicago’s HQ Beercade on Oct. 3 — dubbed “Mean Girls” Day because of a line wherein Heron tells her love interest that the date is Oct. 3 — and included trivia and a specialty cocktail called the Burn Book as a reference to the movie’s own Burn Book in which The Plastics keep photos of people they do not like.

Though the most high-profile celebration of all may be Fey and Richmond’s “Mean Girls: The Musical” coming to Broadway in Chicago at the James M. Nederlander Theatre to cap off the year. The run will last from Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019 to Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. 

Mitchell recognized that despite its age, “Mean Girls” still has enough inertia to keep inspiring work like hers and the Broadway musical and providing motifs for works like Bioh’s “School Girls.”

“Mean Girls lives on,” she said. “It does what it does — which is make people laugh.”

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