Don’t be fooled by the pink—there are some very serious messages under the candy-coated gloss of Mean Girls at the August Wilson Theatre. And not just the obvious ones about kindness and bullying as new-girl-in-school Cady infiltrates the Plastics clique—with the help of new best friends, the arty Janis and the “almost too gay to function” Damian—and loses herself in the process.
“Letting Janis look good was really important to me,” says Barrett Wilbert Weed, who has played the role since the Washington, D.C., premiere. “I wind up playing these characters a lot: They have self-esteem issues or they’re going through a lot as a young adult. And, especially for girls, it’s important to see that people who are put together can still feel shitty about themselves.”
“Janis is way more glam in this version,” interjects Grey Henson, a Tony nominee for his riotous performance as Damian. Acquaintances before Mean Girls, Henson and Weed began to grow close at their final callback, when they made the choice to enter the audition room as if they were best friends in real life.
“We held hands and Bethany Knox, the casting director, said, ‘Do you guys know each other?’” Henson recalls. “And we’re like, ‘Yes!’ And she said, I remember it specifically, ‘I love that!’”
The duo share an easy offstage rapport that’s magnified when stepping into Janis and Damian’s costumes. Weed laughingly recalls a wardrobe malfunction that resulted in Henson’s suspenders dragging a stool behind him during a song. Henson, for his part, lovingly points to a shared lack of filter between Janis and Weed.
In addition to reminding audiences that appearances don’t make life any easier, Mean Girls is also slyly putting two queer characters in place as the musical’s narrators. That’s right: In Weed’s characterization, Janis is a lesbian, though Tina Fey’s script and Casey Nicholaw’s direction never address it overtly.
“Tina and Casey just left it up to me to decide who I wanted her to love,” Weed says. “She’s definitely not hiding it, it’s more just like she does not feel the need to label herself.”
And while Damian’s sexuality is far more archetypal—he favors T-shirts featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race and iconic pop divas, after all—Fey and songwriters Nell Benjamin and Jeffrey Richmond also have him recount a messy public meltdown over a boy in the show-stopping “Stop.”
“It is such a great little gay anthem,” Henson says. “In that moment, ‘Stop’ is sort of like, ‘We all do this, universally.’ Everyone screws up how they present themselves on social media and to the public because you get freaked out, you get in your head.”
And how does Henson stop himself? “I throw my phone across the room.”