Nice CMU boys making it big in ‘Mean Girls’ |
Theater & Arts

Nice CMU boys making it big in ‘Mean Girls’

Joan Marcus
Grey Henson (Damian Hubbard), Barrett Wilbert Weed (Janis Sarkisian) and Erika Henningsen (Cady Heron) in 'Mean Girls.'
Joan Marcus
Kyle Selig (Aaron Samuels) and Erika Henningsen (Cady Heron) in 'Mean Girls.'

Did meandering the “mean streets” of Pittsburgh lead to the “Mean Girls” of Broadway?

It certainly did for Carnegie Mellon University grads Grey Henson and Kyle Selig, two of the good guys of the musical “Mean Girls,” the multiple Tony Award nominee now playing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York.

Pittsburgh played a big role in both their lives, but neither Henson, CMU Class of 2012, nor Selig, Class of 2014, buy into the “mean streets” sobriquet. Pittsburgh, they both agree, is “a great city,” and no one friendlier than its native sons and daughters. “Mean streets? Not where I was living” while at CMU, Henson of Shadyside says with a laugh.

But it is a mean feat to snag starring roles in one of Broadway’s hottest properties so soon out of school: Based on the cult 2004 movie written by Tina Fey — who also wrote the musical’s book — about a cadre of high school upper-class girls with upturned noses who put the snoot in snooty, “Mean Girls” is up for 12 Tonys, including best musical; the awards will be handed out starting at 8 p.m. June 10 in a ceremony broadcast over CBS and CBS All Access.

A nice guy …

Henson is one of the musical’s nominees, portraying the gay and anything but carefree Damian Hubbard, an outsider with an ink-blot inner life who taps into it in a wild tap number opening the second act. Does the character fit him to a T? Only in the costume department; Hubbard dresses for success by mining the successes of gay icons emblazoned on his many T-shirts. For this interview, Henson is not outfitted in one, however: “No,” he says, tongue in cheek, “I’m not in costume.”

But he has learned to fashion a fine career for himself since graduating from the CMU School of Drama. He broke through to Broadway shortly after, portraying Elder McKinley in “The Book of Mormon.”

Damian Hubbard certainly has his, including the inner war he faces facing up to his status as high school outsider. “I bring a lot of myself to the role,” Henson concedes. “I love representing that part of the world he comes from and not making him into a (gay) stereotype.”

But the actor admits he could learn a thing or two from the high school student he portrays onstage to acclaim and a possible Tony accolade. “He is way more confident in high school than I was,” the actor confides. “I didn’t come out of the closet until I was in college.”

“Damian is so apologetically himself. It’s so cool to see a character like that, an old soul in a teenager’s body.”

And a nice guy to boot, even if he’s surrounded by “Mean Girls.”

… and a dreamboat

But then, so is Selig, who plays dreamboat Aaron Samuels, caught up in the nightmares of the “Mean Girls,” one of whom Samuels once dated. Selig, too, shares a passion for his college days and Pittsburgh, and also shares some bio bits with co-star and fellow CMU alum Henson. They both lived their college days in Shadyside, starred in Broadway’s “Book of Mormon” and were their respective high school prom kings. They also share a dressing room now.

And share similar insights into their characters. “Aaron,” Selig says, “is a good boy.”

CMU had other lessons in store for him. “They taught me how to play the bad boy,” he laughs of the memories. “But what they were teaching me was how to be an actor.”

As well as the importance of being pragmatic. “I left school in the fall of 2013 to do ‘Mormon’ on Broadway; I had one semester left,” he remembers.

It was a textbook case of learning on the spotlight. “They allowed me to use my time in ‘Mormon’ as independent study, for which I wrote an essay. To be part of an institution like CMU is amazing; everyone there is good at what they do.”

Selig wouldn’t mind returning one day to teach in Pittsburgh as well — when, he says, he has enough acting credits to merit it. After all, Pittsburgh is where he learned quite a bit attending college and great performances at CLO, “the coolest theater around.”

He also learned that, though a child of the West Coast surf and turf, there’s nothing like some good East Coast weather to chill. Especially during football season.

“Hey, I’m from Los Angeles; we didn’t have a real football team,” he says with a laugh. “I’m Steelers through and through.”

Michael Elkin is an award-winning features writer and playwright as well as novelist.

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