Inside the Music of Broadway Hit Mean Girls with Jeff Richmond

Jeff Richmond Interview

Mean Girls on Broadway

The 2004 American teen comedy film Mean Girls recently had a Broadway make-over. With music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, the musical was nominated for 12 Tony Awards last year (including Best Musical) and continues to thrill audiences with its energy, humor and catchy score.

We recently had the great honor of speaking with 3x Emmy winner and all-around nice guy, Jeff Richmond. In our time with him, we learned about how he started as a composer, the writing process behind Mean Girls, his musical influences and what he's working on next.

Download the official composer-approved Piano & Vocal sheet music for Mean Girls



Interview with Mean Girls composer-extraordinaire Jeff Richmond

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Sheet Music Direct ("S"): Thank you for taking the time to speak with us – we appreciate you're a very busy guy! As you probably know by now, Sheet Music Direct is the website that provides millions of customers worldwide with digital sheet music. Sheet music from Mean Girls has been one of our most-requested things since it debuted on Broadway.

Jeff Richmond ("J"): That's great to hear! I've used your site myself.

S: That's fantastic. As a starting point, it would be great to talk a little about your writing background. At what age did you write your first composition?

J: I didn't take piano lessons when I was a young kid. I started when I was in junior high and high school. I remember the first thing I ever wrote was a tiny musical called Cowgirl on Broadway; I wrote it for the local ladies auxiliary club. I came from a small town in Ohio, and we performed it there. It was a fun, campy little thing. That's the first thing I wrote where I actually got it down on paper and we had to perform it.

S: Wow, that's really cool. When did you transition to feeling like writing music is something you could do at a professional level?

J: I went to college [at Kent State in Ohio] for musical theater as a performer and became more and more interested in the writing process and the musical process and the musical directing process.

S: For sure.

J: After that, I moved onto Chicago. And it was when I got to Chicago – when I was writing little songs for a couple of children's theater companies – that I thought, "this feels like maybe I can actually make a living at this." I got a job playing piano and writing music for The Second City in Chicago. And then it felt like, "oh, well, I'm doing all right – I'm making money sitting in front of this piano and writing words." But it actually wasn't 'til I got the job at Saturday Night Live where I really said, "OK, this is it, I'm not gonna get fired for doing this, I got a job now!"

S: Haha, that's great!

J: And so then I felt like, "OK, I've got an office at 30 Rock with a piano in it and I'm making a living." But it was a progression, you know? I think in any arts, it's not an overnight thing. You just kind of keep plugging away and plugging away. And the next thing leads to something that feels more secure and hopefully that just continues 'til finally you go, "this feels like it's a real job."

S: So, leading up to the big thing from last year – the release of Mean Girls the musical. Can you tell us a little bit about that writing process?

J: Like I said, I came from a very musical theater background, even as a kid. But once you go through college and you take this big artistic divergence from these other mediums of comedy to television to film to scoring, you kind of go away from musical theater. But we finally got to come back and go "all right, now we're finally here. We have our opportunity to put up a Broadway show." We really felt like we had to do this thing. This is our love, our dream – let's do it. So, after Tina [Fey] and I got together, and hired Nell [Benjamin], the basic process was pretty straight ahead. It was sitting around with the script, laying out the story again as we thought it might be structured for a musical. So, it wasn't just taking the movie and sticking songs into it.

S: Sure.

J: And then spotting where we thought actual songs made sense within the structure of the story that we had set forth. And we would come up with an idea for a particular character at a particular moment in the act and decide what its function was. Was it pushing the story along or was it going to be a character introduction thing? Is it going to tell us what the character wanted or needed? We were following all the rules. And then we would go off and write it. Nell would come up with some lyrical ideas and pass it back to me and I would start to shape it. Pretty early on we decided we were trying to make the songs as honest as possible for the characters that people knew so well. We wanted to be sure the styles that they would be singing represented an honesty from them.

S: Very interesting.

J: We really felt strongly that Damian was going to sing from a point of Broadway standards because it just feels like that's his background. He's a choral geek in high school. Everything about him seems like big Broadway numbers. So we kind of stayed true to that. But we tried to make him do other things early on in the process and it didn't feel true. It didn't feel honest. And in the same way we didn't want it all to feel like just pop music for Broadway pop. That also didn't feel very honest either. So, Janis would sing with a kind of alternative rock, almost Debbie Harry kind of quality. The way she comes at things, her heart.

J: The other one was Regina George. To me, even when they scored the movie, Rolfe Kent kind of came at her in a different way. He came at her like she was a James Bond villain. And that was really intriguing for me because I'm such a big John Barry movie score fan. Such a Leslie Bricusse Goldfinger guy, you know? And I thought, "this will be fun." And it makes sense to me that this is how we will approach Regina. So her songs kind of fall into the mode of Bond villain.

S: That's awesome! Speaking of some of the influences you just mentioned, what are some of your musical influences when composing? Obviously musicians throughout their life play many styles from various composers, but do you have any particular influences that helped you write Mean Girls or any of your other titles?

J: I listen to a lot of Broadway stuff just because I really do love it and I love to listen to it. It's also some of the more fun music when you're sitting around and playing. Just grab your Fake Book sheets and just start playing through them. Everybody knows the tunes, and you sing, and have a good time. But what I'm listening to now is I'm revisiting all the old Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald songbooks with Louis Armstrong and listening to those. It's really good fun and cool to listen to.

S: That's cool.

J: But I listen to country, old country, all kinds of rock 'n' roll from my youth. The Police too. I listen to so many different things. And I'll go back and listen to classical music. Sometimes when I'm running on a treadmill I'll just stick on some Four Seasons or Wagner, or anything.

S: Haha!

J: But I listen to lots and lots of influences. Sometimes what I find is that, even in Mean Girls, I'm just following church hymn chords and progressions. I think that's not just an influence of how I grew up; it's also that I've listened to an awful lot of Randy Newman who can take old stuff and bend it to sound new, and take new stuff and bend it to sound old. He's one of my favorites.

S: That's such an eclectic mix! Moving on, what advice would you give to aspiring composers that are just starting out?

J: I think – and I don't mean this in any way – it's frankly pretty easy to write music right now because of the tools that are available. I think that's great. You just get in there with whatever application you have and start making music. But don't forget to actually learn how to play an instrument. Be sure to get behind a piano or a guitar or something and get a tactile feeling on something as you're writing. And my other thing is always go through and listen to everything, listen to something new every week. Don't just try it out – listen to an entire album and try to absorb what is going on. Because you'll find that it really does help you in spots. I'll find myself cornered when I'm scoring a piece. And I'll just completely walk away from whatever palette that I'm working with. I'll just walk away and listen to, you know, even Mumford & Sons – just listen to something completely different. And no matter what, I'll always find something in there that's inspiring.

S: That's great. And then our last question to you is, what are you working on next that all of us can look forward to?

J: Right now I'm starting to score a new Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt project for Netflix. And we have a cool big interactive special we just finished shooting. So there's that and there's a couple of musical theater projects that we are working on, but I'm not at liberty to say yet exactly what those are!

S: Haha, we figured that might be the case. But thank you for sharing that with us. It's really inspiring – all the music that you've created and that you're continuing to create. A big "thank you" for all the terrific insights! We know they will inspire the millions of musicians worldwide that are part of our community. Thanks again for your time!

Jeff Richmond is an award-winning composer, songwriter and producer for television, theatre and film. He served as composer and an Executive Producer on NBC's 30 Rock, winning three Primetime Emmy Awards alongside his wife Tina Fey. He was a musical director at The Second City in Chicago and at Saturday Night Live, where he spent five seasons composing original songs for stars like Jack Black, Queen Latifah, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Jeff's New York theatre credits include his musical Melancholy Baby, the inaugural production of the Ars Nova Theater, and the score for Fully Committed on Broadway starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson. He is currently executive producing, directing and scoring episodes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt in New York City, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters.

Mean Girls ends its spectacular Broadway run and kicks off a US tour this September. Purchase your tickets here.


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