Standing ovations are certainly nothing new when it comes to Broadway productions (the cast and crew would really have to screw up not to get one), but there was something a little extraordinary about the one that greeted a recent performance of the musical Mean Girls at the August Wilson Theatre. The energy and the enthusiasm from the audience seemed a little overwhelming, which immediately begs the question: what is it like to be on the receiving end of that kind of response?
“I have to say, my favorite part in the show is the last 10 minutes,” replies Erika Henningsen, who plays nice girl gone mean, but eventually redeemed, Cady Heron. “There are days when I think, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have the energy to do this.’ It becomes such a marathon, but then in the last 10 minutes I get to speak to the cast — the full cast — in that Spring Fling number. And then I get to communicate with the audience for our ballad finale, which is such a joy, because you realize, ‘Oh, right, this moves people and it touches people.’ But it’s not something you know until the end, because Tina Fey’s writing is never saccharine. It’s never too sweet. It’s really funny, but there are moments of our vulnerability in the show that I think people respond to. And that’s really exciting to see at the end when you realize, ‘Okay, they just didn’t have a good time, they felt connected to the story.'”
But why? After all, it’s based on the 2004 Lindsay Lohan film of the same name (which in turn was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s novel Queen Bees and Wannabes)… actually, “based” probably isn’t the right word. The story is exactly the same, though the combination of Tina Fey’s book (script), music by Jeff Richmond, and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, is somehow transformative, elevating the material from a cute and occasionally touching story to something much more.
Muses Erika, “Music is emotion, and it’s just something that can’t be accomplished in a 90-minute movie in terms of the emotional catharsis. Going back to the thought of what it’s like being on the other end of it, when everybody’s dancing on stage and singing together, and then we talk to the audience? That just cracks your heart open. Even if you’re not expecting it to, there’s just something about seeing this young cast, on stage enjoying one another’s energy, and then sharing it in this sort of communal atmosphere of the theater, that you can’t accomplish on screen.”
Mean Girls — From the Big Screen to the Broadway Stage
The journey of Mean Girls from film to the stage was a fairly long one, in many ways its evolution mirroring the one that Erika has been on. Born Erika Leigh Henningsen on Aug. 13, 1992, in Moraga, CA, she found herself cast, at the age of 17, in her first professional production, a 2010 staging of Hairspray at the Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland, CA. Four years later, she made her debut as part of the New York Philharmonic in a stage concert revival of Show Boat, a live taping of which aired on PBS in 2015. Later that year she became part of the musical Diner, which was based on the 1982 film directed by Barry Levinson. In March of 2015, she appeared on Broadway for the first time in the role of Fantine in the revival of Les Miserables. This was followed in 2016 by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s production of South Pacific, in which she played Ensign Nellie Forbush; and then, in 2017, came an Off-Broadway staged concert of the musical Dear World, starring opposite Tyne Daly. Afterwards, it was back to the Pittsburgh Civil Light Opera for Mamma Mia!, during which she learned she had been cast as Cady in the Washington, DC production of Mean Girls.
All of the above, from a Wikipedia sort of point of view, is interesting, but it doesn’t detail Erika’s personal journey. The idea of deciding to become an actress and making that dream come true to the point that here she is performing on Broadway in the lead of a hit musical for which she received an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination.
“It’s so funny you said that,” she laughs. “I admire Amy Adams’ career. I’m amazed how she transitioned from Enchanted to what she’s doing now. That’s just insane. So I Wikipeda-ed her and was, like, ‘How did she do it?’ It’s the same thing. It just lists the highlights, but not how you get there. Seriously, Wikipedia should have a separate subset of, like, ‘Here are all the things they didn’t get.'”
Okay, then, Erika, here’s your opportunity to fill in the blanks.
“I grew up with really supportive parents, who were able, emotionally and, luckily, financially, to allow me to take classes. I lived outside San Francisco, which is a thriving liberal arts community. So I had professionals and teachers and classes available to me. But I think the biggest shift in my training was when I decided to study it in college. I did a summer program at the University of Michigan, which kind of solidified my desire to go there. And this is a situation where I really applied and auditioned and hoped for the best, and luckily it worked out. That school is the reason I am doing anything right now, because when they graduate, a lot of young artists moved to the city and have no connections. Michigan has a lot of connections, and they provide their students with an opportunity to showcase in New York.
“From there,” she continues, “I was signed with my agent — having somebody to advocate for you when you’re a fresh face in the city makes all the difference. For the first couple of months I was just auditioning and wasn’t getting anything, and that was okay, because I prepared for those auditions like I was going to be performing them all that night. I just thought, ‘I may not get it, because I’m new here, but if they see that I take my work seriously and that I’m always prepared, and always kind of in the room, then when the right part does come along, my agent won’t have to call anymore and fight for me to get it. They’ll think of me on the list.'”
When the parts started coming, Erika made a point of becoming a human sponge of sorts, talking to her co-stars, picking their brains and learning as much from them as she possibly could. Through it all, she continued auditioning for different shows, understood why she didn’t get some, and was surprised she wasn’t cast In others (Frozen, Anastasia), but eventually found herself auditioning for Mean Girls.
Welcome to the lab-oratory.
“I feel comfortable telling this story, because I think people should know how this business can work sometimes,” she says. “There was a lab of the show and I was not cast in the lab. I went in to audition for Mean Girls almost a year and a half ago, and I got really close, but didn’t get it for the lab, which is when they put it up in New York for producers and backers. There’s no costumes, there’s no set, but it was the full show. People could come and see the full show and decide where it was going to go from there. A lot of the actors in the lab are now in this original Broadway cast. And that’s what they were hoping to find. I just thought, ‘Well, that’s over.’ I was really upset, but moved on, because there’s always another audition.”
The lab ended a couple of weeks later, at which point she received a call from her agent saying that the producers wanted to see her. “There’s something so exciting about that, and so terrifying, because I had put it to rest,” Erika notes. “I had mourned the loss of playing Cady and moved on, and wondered if I could put myself out there again for this thing I wanted so badly that I didn’t get. Could I risk being rejected again?”
She waits a beat before adding, “Of course I’m going to risk being rejected again. That’s the bargain you make when you’re an actor. So I went in a couple of times for the second round — and this is for the DC production, which was probably going to be the Broadway cast. I wish I could put my finger on it, but I think when you’ve gone through the process of being disappointed, you have nothing left to lose anymore. There wasn’t as much fear the second time around. I thought ‘Well, I’ve gotten rejected once and I lived, so if I get rejected again, I’ll live.'”
Needless to say, rejection kept its distance and she found herself cast as Cady Heron, who spent much of her youth in Africa, where she is raised by her scientist parents. They end up moving to America, where she starts to attend public school, discovers social cliques, and falls in love for the first time. Befriended by Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), she ultimately finds herself on a personal quest to take down Regina George (Taylor Louderman), leader of “The Plastics,” and pretty much the cruel ruler of the student body. In the process, though, Cady teeters dangerously close to losing herself.
Conversely, in a sense Erika has found herself in the evolution that the show — and she — has taken en route to Broadway. “We did not have the finale to the show — ‘I See Stars’ — until we moved into the theater,” she reflects. “We were tech-ing the show and we didn’t have a finale. One day our artistic team called us into the lobby and taught us the finale. I remember thinking, ‘I just don’t know.’ At that point, I was so deep into the process that I didn’t know what was going to work. I just had to trust them. So they threw us up on stage, Tina gave me the speech that I say now, and [director-choreographer] Casey Nicholaw said, ‘Just go through the song. Don’t worry about it, we won’t block it yet. Just see what happens.’ We did it, and it felt right. Casey gets an incredible amount of work done in a short amount of time. We finished that sort of first run through of the finale and he came up to me and said, ‘You have grown so much. I love watching you own this character now.’ I think it’s because when we were out of town with the show, I was very young — it seems like it was that long ago. But I was so eager to just do it right that I didn’t really trust myself, and I kept getting notes from Casey which said, ‘Your instincts are correct, Erika. You don’t need to add anything to it.’ But I think it wasn’t until we blocked that final puzzle piece of the show that it felt right to me. I just trusted my instincts, and because of what he had been telling me, I just thought, ‘Oh, wow, I have grown in a way I didn’t know.’ It took my director saying it to me in front of our cast of, like, ‘You are carrying this, and that is a joy to see you take on that ownership and that leadership.’ That was a really special experience.”
As has all of this, and while no one is sure how long Mean Girls — or at least Erika’s role in it — will last, she’s accomplished a hell of a lot, not the least of which is being the original lead of a show and standing there with the rest of the cast as recipients of such thundrous applause. Where does she go from here?
“I think what it comes down to is finding people and projects that allow me to show a side of myself that was not in the last piece I did,” she suggests thoughtfully. “I love playing this character, because I bring so much of myself to her. Or at least so much of the self that people know, which is somebody who is really upbeat, really positive. I enjoy getting to bring myself to a character, but there are stories that I want to tell that will allow me to expose the stuff that’s not as readily accessible to me. And that’s maybe a little uncomfortable.
“Being uncomfortable is okay,” Erika notes. “I was scared of this project when I first started, because I just thought, ‘I’m 25, I’m one of the youngest people in this cast. I’m about to lead them.’ That is scary. And it has been a huge growing process as an artist and person. I want to keep doing things like that. Things that I know I can do somewhere in the back of my brain, but when I’m presented with them, I just think, ‘Oh my God, how is this mountain going to be climbed?’ My mom is still protective. On our opening night she was, like, ‘Don’t you get nervous? Don’t you get scared?’ And I just said, ‘Well, there’s no other option. I have to go onstage.'”