You go, Grey Henson!
Suck on this: Tina Fey has adapted her limitlessly quotable 2004 comedy Mean Girls into a hit Broadway musical, updated for the Snapchat set with a grool new score by her husband, Jeff Richmond, and Legally Blonde’s Nell Benjamin.
Reprising his performance from last fall’s world-premiere engagement in Washington, D.C., Henson stars as Damian—known in certain cafeteria circles as one of the greatest people you will ever meet—who helps awkward newbie Cady navigate their high school’s savage social hierarchy. You can keep that pink shirt, because present-day Damian rocks a wardrobe of graphic tees featuring drag queens and other divas.
Henson, who made his Broadway debut as closeted missionary Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon, now rips a page from his Burn Book to spread the word that he’s openly gay and fully functional.
It's pretty clear from your social media that you’re a huge RuPaul’s Drag Race fan. Which season 10 queen are you rooting for?
Miz Cracker for sure. I’ve loved her from the first episode, when she was coming back at Ru with those quick, funny comments. It always gets me when a queen makes Ru laugh. If you win Ru over, you win me over.
You sent RuPaul a Candy Cane Gram video, asking him to come see Mean Girls. Do you think he will?
Oh, it’s going to happen. It has to. Ru tweeted me that he wants to come. I did Book of Mormon for four years—two years on tour and then two years on Broadway—and about two weeks before I got to Broadway, Ru came to see it. Then, a month after I left, he came back! So I keep just missing Ru.
If Damian’s outfits are any indication, he also loves Drag Race.
Yeah, I wear an Alyssa Edwards T-shirt in the show. And for the finale, the back of my jacket has Bianca Del Rio painted as a god.
Were those looks your idea?
It was a collaboration. When Greg Barnes, our costume designer, and his team were thinking about who Damian is in 2018—as opposed to 2004, when the movie came out—they decided he would definitely watch Drag Race. Being gay in high school, Damian would be more open and outlandish now, but we didn’t want him to be too cool or too fierce. He’s still an art freak and an outsider.
Was there a discussion about which queen's merch worked best?
In picking that particular Alyssa shirt, I think they loved that it said “Beast” and that she looked so gorgeous and dramatic, so it really pops in the beginning. And Greg is a good friend of Bianca, so he wanted to incorporate her, too. It really worked out because Bianca and Alyssa are my two favorite queens of all time.
What’s the deal with Damian’s other shirts?
Damian is a celebrity worshipper, and he loves a lot of older gay iconic references that kids today may not know. There’s a Lady Gaga shirt but also Liza, Cher, and Judy. Judy Garland influenced my entire career, so it means a lot to me that I get to wear that shirt. I grew up watching her with my mom. Meet Me in St. Louis is one of my favorite movies.
It seems like there are many similarities between you and Damian.
It’s funny, because when people say sweet things to me at the stage door, sometimes I’ll be like, “Oh, I’m just playing myself!” But that’s not really fair, because I’m putting a lot of work into the show. Yeah, I bring a lot of myself to the role, but I’m not completely like Damian. I wasn’t as open, proud, or snippy back in high school, so it’s fun to step into the shoes of someone a bit bolder and sassier. Damian’s confidence carries me through the show.
Are you almost too gay to function? I hope that’s okay when I say it.
[Laughs] It’s definitely okay when you say it. People think of Damian as being a stereotypical gay best friend, but I really wanted to make him human. Because I don’t think I’m a stereotype either. Some parts of me are flamboyant and feminine, but my gayness doesn't define me completely, and that’s how I see Damian. More than anything, I wanted him to be a really good friend—not just “Yas, queen! Work, mama!”
The audience goes wild when Damian says, “You go, Glen Coco!” and “She doesn’t even go here!” What’s it like to deliver so many famous lines?
It’s amazing. It’s like Rocky Horror Picture Show, where people are waiting for the iconic lines, so I don’t have to work too hard on those—I just have to say them.
How familiar were you with Mean Girls before you booked the musical?
I was obsessed with the movie in high school. That’s really when I fell in love with Tina Fey and her sense of humor. I don’t even remember watching it for the first time—it feels like it was always a part of my life. My friends and I would quote it non-stop. And growing up in Macon, Georgia, it was exciting to see this openly gay character.
Did being so familiar with the movie and Daniel’s Franzese’s performance as Damian make it challenging to make the role your own?
It didn’t. I was inspired by his performance, of course, but I stopped watching the movie because I didn’t want to do an impersonation. With musical theater, you have to dive deeper into the character, because why else would you be singing if not to reveal more about yourself? What’s special about this stage adaptation is that people can love the movie and love the musical separately.
I saw on Instagram that you met Daniel at DragCon of all gay places.
That’s the gayest picture ever. He’s so sweet. He was basically like, “It’s your part now. I’m so excited for you.” He was there selling merch, because he still has such a big following. He gave me some stickers that say “House of Glen Coco.”
What’s it like to work with Tina Fey? Did she live up to the hype?
More than I ever would’ve expected. Everyone who knows me knows I’m the biggest 30 Rock fan ever. I haven’t told her how much of a freak I am about it, but I can quote every episode. I think I learned how to be funny through watching Tina Fey. I was nervous to work with her at first, but once we started, it just felt right. She’s so funny but also so normal, kind, and super-understated. She and her husband, Jeff, were in rehearsals every day. This is their baby, and they really care about all of us.
You’re also in good hands with gay director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. I might’ve given Tina side-eye if she’d hired a straight guy to direct Mean Girls.
Oh, I would’ve given side-eye, too. Casey’s amazing. We worked together on Book of Mormon and we really clicked. He was an actor first, so he just gets it. We’re very similar, actually. I think Casey casts me in parts that he would’ve played himself.
Damian and gal pal Janis break down their high school’s cliques in the song “Where Do You Belong?” Where did you belong in Macon?
I was a theater freak. I started in ballet, oddly, but I was always a performer—that was my place. But it surprises people when I tell them I was also Prom King and Homecoming King my senior year. I was surprised, too, honestly. As friendly as I was, I certainly wasn’t in the popular crowd. My conspiracy theory is that all the southern mothers got together and decided our private school would look really cool and progressive if they crowned the gay kid.
Did you break apart your crowns and toss the pieces to the losers?
I did not. They were these weird felt fabric crowns, so I couldn’t rip them apart without a seam-ripper.
Tell me about your other big song, “Stop.”
That’s a number we added for Broadway, and I call it the gay best friend’s anthem. At that point in the second act, Cady’s getting swept up by the Plastics, overwhelmed with how to deal with boys, how to present herself, how to act on social media. So it’s a funny tap number with a real message about catching yourself before you lay it all out there. Like, don’t send that sixth text if the other person isn’t responding. And don’t send nudes with your head in them. Crop that shit out!
As a social media stalker, I definitely related to that song.
Same. I catch myself on Instagram going down a wormhole, where everyone’s lives look so perfect, and then I’m like, “I don’t even care about these people!”
What other messages in the show do you hope resonate with audiences?
Tina wrote the movie based on the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, which deals with bullying, so the show’s really about being a good person, a good friend, and not letting yourself get caught up in high school bullshit that we still caught up in as adults. With social media, it’s still so easy to think we’re not worth anything if we’re not gorgeous, successful, or dating someone.
Playing Damian really positions you as role model for young gay fans, doesn’t it?
Yeah, I’ve had so many “Damians” come up to me at the stage door and tell me how wonderful it is to see themselves represented on Broadway. It’s important for young gay people, especially, to see that it’s okay to not be bleached-blond, tan, and toothy. You’re still beautiful even if you’re not just posting shirtless selfies on the beach.
At what point did you decide to be out professionally?
Well, I came out to everyone during my freshman year of college at Carnegie Mellon. It wasn’t a shocker. I was very comfortable in my own skin, but that’s when I started taking on the label. Then, a month after I graduated, I started rehearsals to play Elder McKinley in the Book of Mormon tour, so the beginning of my professional career was playing a closeted gay role.
Your own sexuality was bound to come up in interviews.
Exactly. I was right out of school, at 22, and that’s what people were asking me. But I wasn’t going to lie or divert the question. It’s who I am, and I celebrate it. I never want to be pigeonholed, but I also celebrate being a gay man playing gay roles and getting to be a role model for kids. When I was a kid, I definitely wanted to be exposed to more gay people.
Elder McKinley has a tap number, “Turn It Off,” about suppressing his desires. You never tried turning it off?
I couldn’t! It takes so much effort to try to hide it. It’s so much easier to live fully as yourself. I was lucky to have a family and a group of friends in Georgia that didn’t give a shit.
What do you think happens to Damian after the curtain falls?
He’s a junior at the end, so he and Janis are narrating the show as seniors. He’s definitely going to theater school, which is his dream. I want him to move to a big city where he can thrive and figure himself out. He’s probably a little too dramatic for a relationship right now. But I think, much like Grey, he ultimately wants to settle down with a slightly older man he can wear sweaters with, have a summer house together, a few dogs, maybe own a tchotchke shop somewhere—you know, something sweet and casual.
Mean Girls is now playing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York.