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Meet Broadway musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell, one of the show's unsung sheroes
Much has been written about the girl power of Broadway's Mean Girls. After all, the female-focused musical comedy about a naïve new student learning to navigate the high school hierarchy is the brainchild of feminist funnywoman Tina Fey, based on her hit 2004 movie of the same name. But while Fey and the show's young stars are the ones posing in the spotlight, there are lots of women behind the scenes who are helping to make Mean Girls sing.
One of them is musical director, vocal arranger and conductor Mary-Mitchell Campbell. A veteran of a half dozen Main Stem productions and many more Off-Broadway, Campbell seems to have an affinity for shows set during the volatile high school years: She previously worked on Heathers: The Musical and MCC Theater's revisal of Carrie.
"I have a very dark sense of humor," admits Campbell. "And I feel artists are drawn to certain projects because of their history."
Raised in rural North Carolina, she says her background includes "a challenging early chapter" and that music is what kept her going -- by ten she was playing piano professionally in restaurants. But high school is when she found her musical theatre calling. "Our chorus was a big deal," she recalls. "We did a Les Mis choral medley, which is like the entire show in four minutes, and I was like, 'What is that? I must learn that!'" She continued her studies in summer stock and at Furman University before moving to New York City to become a Broadway musical director.
"It's rare that you set out with a specific dream that actually happens," says Campbell, who describes the position as "being the CEO of the music department. I'm the final decision maker for most musical issues. It's a big job but it's a fun one, and you definitely get to work with everybody in the show in some capacity."
Of course the early years of her career were predictably lean, but that's also when she made some of her best friends in the business, including Broadway regular Tituss Burgess who now stars on Fey's sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. "We lived together for a while back in the day," Campbell says. "I sort of lived Kimmy Schmidt before Kimmy Schmidt because Tituss was an out-of-work actor and he was hosting at Ruby Foo's and, very similar to the show, he was miserable trying to get a job. He would come home and at 2am we would sing the entire score of The Last Five Years so it was crazy."
When Campbell was in negotiations to work on Mean Girls, one of the first things she did was text Burgess. "I said, 'Hey, I think I might do this musical,' and he wrote back, 'That's crazy but yeah, you should do that.' It's been interesting now that he and I are in that family on different projects."
That family is Fey, who wrote the book for Mean Girls, and her husband Jeff Richmond, who composed the music and collaborated with Campbell on the vocal arrangements. Richmond is the odd man out on the creative team since the lyricist, Nell Benjamin, is also a woman. "The great thing about Mean Girls is there's so much girl power onstage and backstage," says Campbell. "Our stage management team is all women and my music team is all women. A lot of times with other shows, I'm one of the only women behind the scenes. But Tina really does practice what she preaches in that regard, seeing how many women she employs."
Campbell notes that the story of Mean Girls -- which hews closely to the movie just with belt-heavy songs -- is quite empowering for women, too. Despite the title, there are no bad guys -- er, bad girls -- really. All of the characters are humanized by the end and realize that the societal sexism that encourages them to tear each other down is not in their best interests.
"There's something really important about role modeling and while there're a lot of elements of the musical that show the darker side of girl relationships, at the end of the day, they embrace who they are," Campbell says. "Lots of lines speak to me in the show but right now my favorite is, 'Never apologize for being a boss,'" which is what plastic princess Regina George (Taylor Louderman) tells the new girl Cady (Erika Henningsen) after the latter says sorry for usurping the top spot on the high school food chain. "I love that the message is: it's okay to be smart and it's okay to lead with your brain."
That's not surprising coming from an overachiever like Campbell, who's also quite accomplished beyond the theatre world. Inspired by her difficult childhood, she founded the nonprofit ASTEP: Artists Striving to End Poverty, which connects artists with underserved youth around the world to "awaken their imaginations, foster critical thinking and help them break the cycle of poverty." ASTEP launched in 2006, the same year Campbell made her Broadway debut as the orchestrater and musical supervisor for John Doyle's Broadway revival of Company. "I almost turned it down," Campbell recalls. "I told John, 'I would love to do the show but I just started this nonprofit and I just came back from India where I promised a group of children I would return. I don't feel like I can say no to those kids.' And John said, 'I don't see why you have to choose.'"
Ever since, with the support of her theatrical collaborators, Campbell has found a way to balance her concurrent journeys as an artist and an activist. "Working with kids around the world, the biggest thing I've learned is how the arts are crucial for them to be able to process what's happening in their lives," she says. "One of the biggest things the arts did for me was let me imagine a different life for myself." And it's one she's living to the fullest right now.
To read about a student's experience at Mean Girls, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell in Mean Girls. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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