This Month: Mean Girls Finally Makes Its Broadway Debut
She had a varied, flourishing career that included dancing for Lar Lubovitch, touring with the Bad Boys of Dance, and performing at Radio City Musical Hall and in Broadway shows. But Kamille Upshaw really wanted to make Mean Girls happen.
Not because she'd known Reginas or Plastics in high school—at Baltimore School for the Arts, her classmates were too busy pursuing dance, music, or other "artsy things" to form the obnoxious cliques that Lindsay Lohan experiences in the movie. But when the teen comedy by "Saturday Night Live" giants came out in 2004, Upshaw and her friends watched Mean Girls over and over and over. It was "an obsession," she says.
When Upshaw learned there was going to be a stage musical, of course she wanted in. But she was doing Hamilton and couldn't make the invited audition her agency had snagged. So she went to an open call, and got several callbacks. However, she had to skip the final dance call.
She was surprised to learn that director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, book writer Tina Fey and the other Mean Girls creators wanted her to come in to sing and read for them anyway. They hired her for the lab, and now, a year later, with the show ensconced at the August Wilson Theatre, she's opening a Broadway musical.
PC Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown
"What makes Mean Girls so special to me," Upshaw says, "is that I finally am a part of a Broadway musical from the ground up—I get to help put together this thing that is now a show." Upshaw had joined the 2012 national tour of Flashdance a couple of weeks in, and got into Hamilton shortly after it opened.
In both cases, she felt simultaneously like an insider and an outsider. "The casts welcomed me," she recalls, "so in a way I was very much part of the original casts. But, for me, if I'm not there before opening, or in the rehearsals, it doesn't feel like I'm part of the opening cast."
This time, she was there from step one, and loving it. Nicholaw, she says, "is really good about knowing when to have fun and when to focus, focus, focus. We are creating a high school onstage," she says. "The cool thing about Mean Girls is how the ensemble functions, as a prominent, important part of the show—we move everything. We are the school."
In one cafeteria scene, the ensemble propels trays and tables around the stage as Grey Henson, the Book of Mormon veteran who plays the acerbic, unabashedly gay Damian, sings "Where Do You Belong?" And, unlike most Broadway ensembles, the Mean Girls crew isn't anonymous. "I'm Rachel Hamilton," she says. "All the women have characters, and a lot of the men, too." They're fleshed out, she adds, "almost as much as the Plastics. And on top of that, we get to dance."
PC Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown
The style is mostly musical theater hip-hop, Upshaw says. But she hints that Nicholaw, a tap maestro, may have a few surprises up his sleeve. She's more willing to talk about how open he is to input from his dancers. "Casey and his assistants bring in full phrases," she explains. "But then they let us make it our own. We bring the youth into the movement, so it looks like up-to-date hip-hop. We are all in it together."
Having worked with Sergio Trujillo on the Flashdance tour and with Andy Blankenbuehler on Hamilton, she finds that Nicholaw's "mind and vision" remind her of Blankenbuehler, while his "fun, energetic take" resembles that of Trujillo.It was especially fun when the musical tried out last fall in Washington, DC, and brought her close to home. Upshaw loves having friends and family in the audience. "Yeah," she says, "I suppose I'm a little more nervous—they are my biggest fans and my hardest critics. But when they come, I feel so alive, so good performing for them."
You know compelling musicality when you see it. But how do you cultivate it? It's not as elusive as it might seem. Musicality, like any facet of dance, can be developed and honed over time—with dedicated, detailed practice. At its most fundamental, it's "respect for the music, that this is your partner," says Kate Linsley, academy principal of the School of Nashville Ballet.
Notable dancer and beloved teacher, Ross Parkes, 79, passed away on August 5, 2019 in New York City. He was a founding faculty member at Taipei National University of the Arts in Taiwan, where he taught from 1984 to 2006. Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Cloud Gate Dance Theater, said: "He nurtured two generations of dancers in Taiwan, and his legacy will continue."
About his dancing, Tonia Shimin, professor emerita at UC Santa Barbara and producer of Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance, said this: "He was an exquisite, eloquent dancer who inhabited his roles completely."
Just four years ago, the University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance welcomed its first class of BFA students. The program—which boasts world-class faculty and a revolutionary approach to training focused on collaboration and hybridity—immediately established itself as one of the country's most prestigious and most innovative.
Now, the first graduating class is entering the dance field. Here, six of the 33 graduates share what they're doing post-grad, what made their experience at USC Kaufman so meaningful and how it prepared them for their next steps:
More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.