Screams pierced the air. Did someone score a goal in overtime?
Nah. Tina Fey just entered the room.
Theater and sports aren’t the most natural bosom buddies, but the two bonded over common ground backstage at Mean Girls on Broadway Tuesday night at the August Wilson Theater, as three members of the earth-shattering 1999 U.S. Women’s Soccer World Cup Championship team stopped by for a visit.
The moment was pure girl power: Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly gave Fey a shirt emblazoned with the iconic image of Brandi kneeling with ripped off shirt in hand. Apparently, teamwork is the same in heels or cleats. The musical champions kindness and acceptance—and Foudy told Women in the World a “mean girl” would not have cut it on their team: “You don’t have the time or energy for that,” she said. “You have to celebrate and take care of each other.”
In addition to their elite athleticism, that quality is at the core of why the ’99 team has remained so iconic, especially to young women looking for themselves on screen—and on the field.
Fey wrote the book for the musical, based on her 2004 film of the same name. Her husband, Jeff Richmond, wrote the music, and Nell Benjamin handled lyrics (the posters cheekily claim a rhyming dictionary was used). One of the showstoppers is the anthemic “Fearless,” a feeling embodied by the soccer stars now celebrating the 20th anniversary of the game seen around the world. “I just want to say that you changed a lot of young girls’ lives,” said Jennifer Simard, who plays Ms. Norbury (Fey’s role in the film), and is so convincing that Fey said, “I think sometimes on a boozy Saturday, people think it is me.”
The current U.S. women’s team recently filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. soccer federation, only months before they are set to play the World Cup in France in July.
Twenty years ago, Foudy says, “We were always thinking through mentors like Billie Jean King—you have a blank canvas, and where do you want to leave the game, and how do you want to build it?” she said. “I know we take a lot of pride in watching this current team carry that torch and continue, and sadly that fight is something that has to still be waged. It’s exhausting and frustrating but it’s courageous to take this on right before the World Cup.”
“When they’re taking the stand it’s for the team, but they’re impacting so many other people around the world,” Kristine Lilly points out. “Other organizations in Canada and England are fighting for equal pay and more support and finance, so it’s making a bigger impact.”
A similar ripple effect is happening on Broadway, as young women are flocking to the show to hear a message of self-empowerment (laced with biting wit, of course). The cast and soccer players bonded over having to stay in peak shape, and the impossibility of winding down after a late game or evening show, each saying you ride that adrenaline for an hour or two and then crash.
A Broadway musical can take five years to put together — and while everyone says it, no one wants to believe it. Fey thought she could sneak through: “I was like no way, we’re from TV, we work fast. And nope, it took five years,” Fey said. “I would love to do it again. I keep saying I wish we started a second one two years ago, so we had one down the pike.”
Meanwhile, she’s no stranger at her own show, which celebrated its one-year anniversary last month. (Fey says when she watches, she prefers to pace in the back.) “They’re bringing joy to people every night,” she said, “It feels like a garden that I just go check on it sometimes and it’s growing on its own.”
So fast, in fact, the musical’s starting a U.S. tour in September.
They might make a few tweaks: “I always keep an eye on the jokes and make sure the jokes are still fresh,” Fey said. It’s not exactly a joke, but there’s a mention in there now of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was accused of sexual misconduct late last year. “It’s so funny, because it used to be Garrison Keillor, and then we changed it out of town [in Washington D.C.] and then that happened [with Tyson], and I’m like, ‘I’m running out of unproblematic gentleman.’”
Film and TV are back to taking Fey’s full attention. It was just announced Busy Tonight, the late-night show fronted by Busy Phillips, wasn’t picked up by E! for a second season. Fey’s an executive producer: “It’s a huge bummer and I hope we can find a new place for her to have a show, because she is fantastic and I thought she is moving so much faster on the learning curve than many, many other hosts,” she said. “She really got it and was getting it quick. It’s a waste of a really solid host so hopefully we can find something else.”
Erika Henningsen, who plays Cady Heron, homeschooler-turned mean girl-turned reformed hero—was only seven when the team shook the world but remembers going to one of the games in San Francisco during that fateful season. “I was enthralled, not just from watching the game but watching the women on the field at the height of their careers, the height of their athleticism and their teamwork,” she said. (Not a leap to imagine a young girl sitting in the mezzanine thinking the same of Henningsen and the cast’s performance every night.)
Henningsen is currently raising money and collecting books at the stage door for the African Library Project (her character Cady grew up in Africa). “The greatest gift you can share with someone is the gift of storytelling,” she said, and she has hundreds of books sitting back at her apartment, ready to be boxed and shipped off to a girls’ school in Kenya.
This entire group of women—writers, athletes, actors—working hard and getting things done brings to mind a line Ms. Norbury has in the show, when she’s trying appeal to the young women’s sense of decency: “We have to stop beating each other up over every little thing, because meanwhile men are running around grabbing butts and shooting everybody!”
— Julie Foudy (@JulieFoudy) May 8, 2019