'Mean Girls' director Casey Nicholaw on bringing the musical to the West End

Following its run on Broadway in 2018, and a staggering 12 Tony Award nominations, Mean Girls is in the West End. We meet the show's director/choreographer ahead of opening.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw may have been involved with stage musical Mean Girls for the better part of a decade, but as he readies the Broadway hit for its summer opening at the Savoy Theatre this month, he knows one thing for sure: look above all for kindness when it comes to choosing a cast.

“That’s what we’ve kept saying ever since we started,” says Nicholaw who, in 2018, directed and choreographed for Broadway an adaptation of Tina Fey’s 2004 film about the social hazards of high school. Following the coming–of-age experiences of teenager Cady Heron as she swaps home education for an American high school, the show looks at the cruel power of social cliques, namely girl group the “Plastics”, which is run by Queen Bee Regina George.

“We just want to hire nice people,” Nicholaw says of a London cast headed by Charlie Burn as vulnerable outsider Cady — Lindsay Lohan’s part in the original film — and Georgina Castle as the biting, beautiful Regina. He continues: “There has to be a heart to the character — even the Plastics.” Made up largely of budding young talent, the all-British company includes the veteran actress-singer Zoe Rainey, who starred in An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre in 2017. Nicholaw lavishes her with praise: "Zoe is lovely, truly. So much fun."

1200 LT Charlie Burn (Cady), Elèna Gyasi (Gretchen), Georgina Castle (Regina) and Grace Mouat (Karen) in Mean Girls. CREDIT Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

But isn’t there a risk that those cast as baddies may end up becoming rather too much like their parts? Nicholaw laughs down the phone during a lunchtime break one week into rehearsal. “That does happen. I’ve seen it on many shows where members of a company can take on their characters.” Ever discreet, he is naming no names.

Our interview is taking place at almost the exact same time as the announcement in New York of this year’s Tony Award nominations, which happens to be a rare season that doesn’t find Nicholaw in contention. Scripted by the original film’s writer Fey, with songs by her husband Jeff Richmond and Legally Blonde’s Nell Benjamin, Mean Girls received a staggering 12 Tony nods back in the day — more than any other show that season.

Nicholaw, himself a two-time Tony Award winner, sounds pleased to be sitting out Broadway’s current, hyper-competitive horse race. “I’m very happy to be here [in London] working on what I’m working on,” away from the Broadway hothouse. “London is probably my favourite city in the world, but don’t tell New York that.”

Nicholaw says the secret of Mean Girls is that it benefits from “being totally in the zeitgeist: everyone has seen and knows the Mean Girls phenomenon, and every single person has gone to high school and experienced some version of all these things.” He adds that the London cast “has seen the original [film] so many times.”

1200 LT Grace Mouat (Karen), Charlie Burn (Cady), Georgina Castle (Regina), Elèna Gyasi (Gretchen) in Mean Girls. CREDIT Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Nicholaw believes that the show’s message remains pertinent: "Be true to yourself and be nice to people. We need to stick together."

This production looks to be more streamlined than it was in New York by about 15 minutes, and Nicholaw teases the addition of some material from the 2024 film version of Mean Girls the Musical, which starred Reneé Rapp and Angourie Rice, and saw Fey and Tim Meadows reprise their roles as Ms Norbury and Principal Duvall. Nicholaw had no hand in the recent film but is glad it exists. "The film has kept the title present," he says.

Surely Nicholaw was spared the social ostracism suffered by many of the characters in Mean Girls? “Not if you’re a gay boy,” says Nicholaw, who recalls being “beat up quite a lot” during his schooling in California, which led eventually to the safety and salvation offered by the theatre. He moved to New York in 1982 and over time has distinguished himself as one of the rare director-choreographer hyphenates.

What is it like to take on both tasks? “I like it because I feel as if I get to move the story as one voice,” says Nicholaw, who was hired only as choreographer on the original Broadway production of Spamalot, directed by the legendary Mike Nichols. “When I was doing Spamalot, I wasn’t thinking, ‘I need to be a director.’” But the show won the 2005 Tony for Best Musical and Nicholaw was offered the chance to direct and choreograph The Drowsy Chaperone the morning after Spamalot opened. His dual career was launched.

1200 LT Elena Skye (Janis), Tom Xander (Damian) and Charlie Burn (Cady) in Mean Girls. CREDIT Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Nicholaw is well-positioned to reflect on adapting one art form into another, having worked on so many stage shows that began as films such as Aladdin, which ran at the Prince Edward Theatre for three years between 2016 and 2019. “The first thing I ask when someone brings me a project is, does it sing? More often than not, I think, ‘Wow, I love that movie but it doesn’t sing to me.’ But I really got so excited about Mean Girls and could see where it was going.” The offstage involvement of 30 Rock creator and star Fey didn’t hurt. “She and Jeff are such musical theatre fans: they grew up with it, love it, and speak the language.”

Nicholaw expanded his own horizons earlier this year, directing the premiere in Hamburg – and in German – of Disney’s Hercules, which is inevitably eyeing an English-language version. For now, though, his focus is on getting Mean Girls ready for the Savoy, a playhouse he knows well from his time directing Dreamgirls in 2016.

Does he ever inadvertently confuse the two sound-alike titles? Nicholaw likes the question. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called them the wrong thing!” Surely he must have paused to wonder what might happen were the take-no-prisoners Effie, from Dreamgirls, ever to come across the socially ravenous Regina. “There’d be a sass-off, for sure,” says Nicholaw, who also knows how the encounter would end. “I think Effie would mash Regina to the ground.”

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Photo credit: Casey Nicholaw in rehearsals for Mean Girls. Inset: the Mean Girls cast in the West End. (Photos by Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Originally published on

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