By Tara Ryazansky
Photos by Max Ryazansky
The pink doors of the August Wilson Theatre burst open while the Broadway actors are still taking their curtain calls. Legions of fans, many of them wearing pink, run to the stage door hoping for an autograph or a selfie with one of The Plastics.
If you’ve ever seen the cult film that Mean Girls the musical is based on, then you know what I’m talking about. And if you don’t know, then you’re certainly in the minority here, where fans quote their favorite lines and sing the songs off key while waiting for a glimpse of fan favorites Janis and Damian.
Associate music director and Bayonne native Meg Zervoulis sometimes gets mistaken for the actress depicting Ms. Norbury, who was played in the film by Tina Fey, who wrote the book that the Mean Girls musical is based on.
“This place is so crazy. I’ve worked in a lot of shows, and the fandom for this is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Zervoulis says. She saw the original film years before the play became the Tony-nominated hit that it is today. “I definitely wasn’t a super fan or anything. In fact, I had to refresh my memory once I got the job just to familiarize myself with the jokes.”
Now Zervoulis works the show as associate music director from inside the orchestra pit. She might be able to navigate the crowd outside easier than the stars, but she’s just as important. On any given night, Zervoulis either conducts or plays keyboard 2. Her days are busy with rehearsals as new actors come in to cover for or replace other performers. There’s plenty of administrative work as well. “It’s really a full-time job, and it’s bigger than just playing the show, but I enjoy it,” she says as she makes her way through the old theater’s dark backstage maze.
BC, Before Conducting
Zervoulis’s musical career started at age 3 when she was in Kindermusik classes. “It was with Judy Kawalek in the church on 5th Street by Henry Harris,” Zervoulis recalls. “That’s where it all started, but my parents were Bridgemen, so it was just inevitable.”
A love for music might have been inevitable, but a Broadway career is an unattainable dream for most. Zervoulis thinks that growing up in the shadow of the city had something to do with her success. “I started piano lessons in New York City when I was 8,” she says. “That made New York feel accessible. I wouldn’t say that the actual achievement of working on Broadway ever felt easy, but it was definitely always part of my atmosphere. My mom would take us to shows when we were little. She would take me to my piano lessons. I always felt the close proximity. It’s rare from such a young age to know what Lincoln Center is, and to know what Broadway looks like and what the shows are like.”
Zervoulis also counts her first piano teacher, Marianne Greiman, Joan Rosen, Lydia Megale, and Serge Puchinsky of the BHS music department as Bayonnites who inspired her success.
Throughout her years at BHS, Zervoulis was involved with music, which meant accompanying the choir, serving as drum major, and performing in plays as an actor and musician. Then she landed the perfect after-school job: “I started working at the Paper Mill Playhouse. Joan Rosen, who was the head of arts at Bayonne High School recommended me. Through working there I got experience music directing.”
She studied classical piano at Carnegie Mellon University but gravitated to the drama school as her interest in conducting grew.
It was through Paper Mill Playhouse that Zervoulis met Mary-Mitchell Campbell, music director of Mean Girls. “I’ve been working for her now for three or four years on bigger and bigger projects, and now this.”
Zervoulis started working on Mean Girls last September with New York rehearsals. Then the play ran in Washington, D.C., for 10 weeks while the team fine-tuned the show based on audience reactions. Fey and her composer husband, Jeff Richmond, changed the script and the score along with Nell Benjamin, the lyricist.
“She’s incredibly smart,” Zervoulis says of Fey. “My favorite thing is watching how quickly she could fix jokes. There would be a couple of nights where one joke wasn’t landing as heavily as she would want, and then in the next rehearsal watching her go into her brain parts and create a new joke that would then land so awesomely, I mean, not everyone could do that. She is totally Liz Lemon in real life.”
As the show closed in DC they got the news that they would be opening in New York. “That doesn’t always happen,” Zervoulis says. “It was just general elation in the whole building. Not that it was unexpected; sometimes when you’re working on a show with such a star-power creative team, often it’s expected that it will eventually make it to Broadway, but the rapid calendar—it’s called fast track in the industry—made everybody really happy.”
The play was an instant Broadway hit. “There’s a fan base that really loves the music,” Zervoulis says. Richmond composed the themes for 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “It’s very similar to those scores in that it’s theater pop and quirky and really crowd-pleasing. In fact, we’ve been getting viral videos from all over the world.”
Zervoulis likes the videos, but it’s the fan art and letters that really move her. “The tone of so many of them is a thank you, because the music or the tone of the show has helped them to embrace who they are,” Zervoulis says. “They’re victims of bullying. We have an alliance with Stomp Out Bullying. I like knowing that there’s a great message with this show. The cast is always willing to donate their time to stay and do talkbacks, and I love that.”
Up next for Zervoulis is a gig as musical director on a musical comedy called The Prom. Broadway previews begin in October. The music is by Matthew Sklar, who composed the music for The Wedding Singer and Elf the Musical. “It’s more traditional Broadway,” Zervoulis says. “It’s an original musical based on a true story, not a movie.”
Outside the theater, fans are still taking photos under the marquee. Zervoulis has this final word for those with Broadway dreams: “There is no one way to reach a goal. Go with your instincts, stay close to your roots, be yourself, and observe others who have succeeded in paths similar to the ones you desire.”—BLP