It’s just so fetch: sitting at the table with the new mean girls.
They are this year’s cool kids: “Mean Girls,” now in a limited tryout run at the National Theatre, is on the shortlist of this season’s anticipated new Broadway musicals. It’s based on the Tina Fey-penned 2004 high school rivalry comedy that is such a cult fave that it has its own day (Oct. 3). The movie’s backstabbing stars included Lindsay Lohan as new girl Cady Heron, Rachel McAdams as vengeful Regina George — queen bee of the clique known as the Plastics — and Amanda Seyfried as the ultra-dim Plastic Karen Smith.
This is the quintet playing the singing and dancing Mean Girls and their outsider nemesis, Janis:
Erika Henningsen as the newbie Cady Heron, whose do-good parents home-schooled her as they worked in Africa; Taylor Louderman as the ultra-manipulative Regina; Ashley Park as Gretchen Wieners, who tries to make “fetch” this year’s “cool”; Kate Rockwell as Karen, the Plastic so vapid that she asks Cady, “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?”; and Barrett Wilbert Weed as goth girl Janis Sarkisian.
Dressed in all black for a photo shoot, the actresses have gathered around a small table upstairs at the National. The rehearsal days are dwindling; the first performance is a week away. All the heavyweights are around somewhere: Fey, still tweaking the book. Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, composer for Fey’s television hits “30 Rock” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” writing the music. “Legally Blonde: The Musical” lyricist Nell Benjamin,” penning the lyrics. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose musical comedy hits include “The Book of Mormon” and “Something Rotten!” And Lorne Michaels, the “Saturday Night Live” godfather who is a lead producer on this show.
But it will fall to these performers to execute the songs, dances and jokes about cheese fries and carb diets that the “Mean Girls” fan base will be primed to see. Huddling together and laughing a lot, the actresses dish.
Q: What was your relationship to “Mean Girls” before this?
Rockwell: Especially for our age group, it’s a cultural phenomenon. It became ingrained in the way we speak and the -isms we’ve developed. It’s hard for me to imagine not having “Mean Girls.”
Park: “Mean Girls” is the movie I can watch at any time, with anybody.
Henningsen: We were talking about if this is going to be a “Rocky Horror” experience, because everybody knows the lines. People can probably recite more of the scenes verbatim than they even realize.
Park: But they’re not going to know when the lines are coming.
Henningsen: That’s true.
Q: How did “Mean Girls” get this kind of status?
Weed: I’ve never heard anybody be able to articulate or explain down to such minute detail what exactly happens in young female friend groups — the competition, the fighting, needing to be sneaky and needing to appear like you’re a nice person even though you have great anger and things you want to say, but can’t.
Louderman: It feels like the most honest portrayal of life in high school. Tina brought in some young teenagers to watch our run-through, and it’s clear that she listens to that age group. She wanted to hear whether they use Instagram or Snapchat more, whether they use hashtags — what’s in among that crowd.
Rockwell: She’s such an observer. Sometimes when she writes I go, “Yes, that is exactly what we’re doing” — and I didn’t even know I was doing it. I think of the character who says, “I saw Cady Heron wearing army pants and flip flops, so I went out and bought army pants and flip flops.” That’s what we did!
Q: Yet it’s a comedy.
Henningsen: But isn’t high school funny, once you’re out of it? When you think back to the things that mattered so much, you’re like, “Oh, my God.” When you get to look back, you find some joy and ridiculousness.
Weed: It’s retrospective relief. You don’t ever want to feel as weirdly in daily danger as you do when you’re in high school.
Q: How is this different as a musical?
Henningsen: My favorite thing was seeing what they extrapolated on from the movie. They made meals out of those tiny moments by bringing music into it — and Casey Nicholaw’s incredible choreography.
Louderman: It’s fun to watch Tina experiment with different setups — the same sort of joke, but maybe a different line or two. You still get the same sort of vibe, but you get a surprise.
Rockwell: I love that there’s a storytelling perspective change. You get to know some characters in a very different light than you did in the film. I won’t say which ones. But it’s really neat.
Weed: [Fey is] coming at it from a different point in her life. And she has two daughters. So the things being brought into the story now are even deeper and more sensitive.
Park: We’re at our most vulnerable when we’re singing onstage, and when you are able to open up characters through song, it goes perfectly with them being in high school. We just had our sitzprobe yesterday —
Group: Ohhhh! [The sitzprobe is the first time the actors rehearse with the orchestra and get the music’s full effect.]
Park: We were mosh-pitting at the end of it.
Weed: And everybody was crying. [They laugh.] I’ve never watched my director, book writer, lyricist and composer cry at the sound of the music.
Q: How would you describe the music?
Henningsen: It’s not just limited to musical theater. Because it’s set in the modern day, they pulled all these influences from pop, rock, jazz, Africana. My favorite thing was hearing how each character has a different sound. In a show about five women, they wanted to make sure everybody was distinct.
Rockwell: It sounds like Jeff [Richmond], too. It sounds like his voice. If you pay attention to the music he wrote for “30 Rock” and “Kimmy Schmidt,” you’ll hear his voice.
Q: Is Lorne Michaels hanging around?
Rockwell: He was here yesterday. He pops in quite a bit.
Weed: His relationship with Tina is so cool to watch. It feels like they’re family. The other day we had a break and she was on her laptop. Some people from “Saturday Night Live” had come to watch a run-through, which was mind-blowing. We had a conversation, and she said, “That reminds me. I have to email Lorne, because I want this character to reappear on SNL.” I was like, “Do you do that often?” She said, “Oh, yeah — any time I want something to happen.” I was like, “Does it always happen?” She said, “Maybe 20 percent.”
Q: So who’s the boss of this?
Rockwell: Casey. In a room where everybody has history and a portfolio of successes — and it’s all big — I’ve been very interested to see. Behind the screen, I don’t know. But the voice of leadership is Casey Nicholaw.
Louderman: He’s the boss. But he’s very collaborative.
Rockwell: He listens to everybody. But at the end of the day, when there’s a question, everyone’s heads turn to him.
Q: What the world wants to hear is mean girls talking smack about Tina Fey.[Laughter.]
Rockwell: She’s really quiet.
Weed: She’s shy.
Louderman: You would expect her to have that playful quality we see on TV. But really we get that from Jeff. Jeff is silly and quirky. Tina, even when she has something to say to you, she draws you in.
Park: She trusts the people she’s brought in. She trusts us with these characters.
Louderman: But she shouldn’t trust us with her phone.
Weed: She needed to go back into the room quickly, and she said, “Barrett, hold my phone.” I went, “Okay.” Then I said, “Guys guys guys — I have Tina’s phone and it’s unlocked! What do I do?” We just took a thousand pictures on it.
Henningsen: My favorite thing during rehearsals was to watch Tina’s face. Her lips would be moving. She would either be saying the lines with us, or she would want to rewrite and would be saying it to herself. Then on a five-minute break she would come up and say, “Maybe say it like this next time.” She has no ego about the writing. If it doesn’t sound good on our timing, she’s like, “Try it this way.”
Louderman: Jeff does the same thing.
Rockwell: Jeff sings all the songs. And he’ll give a full performance. The other day he was giving a full Regina George performance from his chair. It was so cute!
Park: This is their first musical, and to see how genuinely excited they are is so fun to watch.
Rockwell: Sitzprobe day is music day: Jeff’s day, and Nell’s. Watching Tina congratulate Jeff at the end — we couldn’t even take a photo. I’ve never seen her smile so big. They’re a quiet couple, and there was a quiet moment in the back of that room.
Q: Is it good or treacherous that “Mean Girls” has such a built-in fan base?
Louderman: The expectations are going to be a thing, but I feel really confident that people are going to be pleasantly surprised. I love that the message is a little bit stronger.
Henningsen: Are we allowed to say how she’s added onto that message, about not cutting one another down, but also not apologizing for being a strong woman?
Louderman: Let’s just say we encourage kindness and understanding.
Park: And not everyone’s going to be best friends at the end of high school.
Erika Henningsen (Cady): Raised in California and seen at Arlington’s Signature Theatre as Beth in the 2014 Sheryl Crow-Barry Levinson musical “Diner.” Two years ago, at 23, Henningsen became Broadway’s youngest Fantine in “Les Misérables.”
Taylor Louderman (Regina): Wendy in the recent NBC “Peter Pan Live!” and lately has been playing Lauren in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. “I’m from Bourbon, Missouri, where spirits are high,” Louderman says, “and where the cattle population exceeds the human population.”
Ashley Park (Gretchen): Born in Southern California and raised in Ann Arbor, Mich. She has been in “Mamma Mia!” and played Tuptim in Lincoln Center’s “The King and I.”
Cincinnati-raised Kate Rockwell (Karen): Broadway credits include “Rock of Ages” and “Legally Blonde”; last year she was Carrie Pipperidge in Arena Stage’s “Carousel.”
Barrett Wilbert Weed (Janis): Veronica in the original Los Angeles “Heathers: The Musical”; she won a Helen Hayes Award as Sally Bowles in Signature’s 2015 “Cabaret.”
National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-6161. http://thenationaldc.org
Dates: Through Dec. 3.