Erika Henningsen Graduates From Mean Girls Ahead of Flying Over Sunset
When a cast member leaves the Broadway production of Mean Girls, they call it "Graduation Day." Erika Henningsen has watched several of her costars move on from North Shore High School, but on February 22, after two years of playing leading lady Cady Heron, Henningsen will experience her own commencement.
Henningsen is leaving the production to costar in James Lapine, Tom Kitt, and Michael Korie's brand-new musical Flying Over Sunset at Lincoln Center Theater. The show will be a stark shift from Tina Fey's laugh-a-minute creation, featuring Henningsen as Ann Brokaw, the late 19-year-old daughter of Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce, whom Luce hallucinates back to life during an LSD trip.
While she's understandably emotional at the thought of graduating from Mean Girls, Henningsen is excited to take all she's learned and apply it to her latest project. Even if that means letting the perfectionist side of her brain relax for a little while.
How many performances of Mean Girls have you done, and what is it like to do that show by night and rehearse Flying Over Sunset by day?
As of two weeks ago, I was upwards of 780 performances, not including our out-of-town tryout in Washington, DC. The two shows are of such different worlds, so it's very interesting to go from this period piece to playing a high schooler every night. The thing I was worried about, and I don't think it'll be a problem…I've done so many performances of Mean Girls and I want to go out as strong as I started. I'm just trying to pace myself, save my energy, and get through the shows I have left with everything I've got.
Were you ready to go, or would you have stuck around a little longer if Flying Over Sunset hadn't come along?
I was ready to go. I still really enjoy doing it, but I think if I had stayed even six months longer, that would change. Grey Henson and I have moments onstage where we can talk to each other in character, and one night we broke a little bit and said it's time for somebody else to play these parts. It's not that we're not giving our all or are unhappy to be there, it's just that we've excavated everything we can. It's time for fresh eyes on the roles, on the show, on the story.
How has your performance as Cady changed over time, and what have you learned about yourself as an actor along the way?
I went through a bunch of different phases with the show. We get tagged in little videos that people have taken, bootlegs if you will. I see versions of the performance I gave at the beginning of the run, and I know what I do now, eight times a week, and it's just so different. There was such a beautiful pressure on the show in the sense that people love the source material and we had such a hunger to do it justice. I started this show so eager to please and so chomping at the bit that everything was at a 10. The whole first year was learning that that type of energy is not sustainable.
A big thing Casey Nicholaw and I dealt with was that he trusted me when I didn't always trust myself. When I started working on the show, I was on the balls of my feet at all times. There is definitely space for that, and it's definitely necessary as the engine of the show, but I had to learn to trust that what I had to offer just as Erika Henningsen, the human being onstage playing Cady, would be interesting — to trust the instincts I was too nervous to have when we first opened because I just wanted to present a finished, perfect product.
I got to work with Jen Simard and Kerry Butler, two of my comedic idols, in very different ways [both as Mrs. Norbury]. Seeing how differently both of those women played those characters, and how it worked for each of them, was such a lesson in "Trust what you bring to the table." Because there's no right or wrong. It's what's intrinsically you that is good.
How are you applying what you learned on Mean Girls to building your character in Flying Over Sunset?
I'm trusting in the process, especially because this show is so new and so different and I'm a much more supporting character. I am such a perfectionist. During Mean Girls, I was like "I have to be perfect on day one." That is so not the way to create, especially with a piece that's not based on anything. None of us really know what Flying Over Sunset is going to be yet. Two years ago, that would have been terrifying to me, but now it's exciting to be privy to that kind of creative process. I was saying to Jen Simard, I'm so lucky that I got to do a complete 180 from this very commercial, very polished piece of source-material theater to almost like a cubist, Salvador Daliesque James Lapine piece.
Do you have any regrets about your time in Mean Girls?
I wish I had factored more bathroom breaks— or actually, just a single bathroom break, into my track. [laughs]