The actress is no teenager, but doesn’t mind playing them on stage, especially since, she says, “being part of this cultural moment gives me an opportunity to connect with young girls in another way.”
It has been 10 years since Kate Rockwell, then in her mid 20s, made her Broadway debut as Margot, Elle Woods’ boy-crazy sorority sister in the 2007 musical adaptation of Legally Blonde. This spring, following several returns in other youth-centric shows -- among them Bring It On: The Musical, also inspired by a hit film -- Rockwell is back in yet another musical based on a movie that helped shape the teen zeitgeist of the early aughts: Mean Girls.
“My roles seem to get younger as I get older,” muses Rockwell, cast as Karen Smith -- fondly remembered as the dumb blonde in the Plastics, the titular trio that terrorizes their high school -- in the critically acclaimed production, which features a book by the film’s original screenwriter Tina Fey.
Perhaps, though, dumb is too strong a word? “I like to call her singularly focused,” Rockwell says generously, albeit with an obvious wink in her voice, of Karen. “She’s very good at focusing on the task at hand. Unfortunately, that usually means checking out how she looks or how to get a boy’s attention.”
Rockwell was drawn into Mean Girls by its lyricist, Nell Benjamin, who co-wrote the music and lyrics for Legally Blonde with husband Laurence O’Keefe. (Fey’s spouse, Jeff Richmond, is Mean Girls’ composer.) “She connected me with Tina, who invited me to do the first table reading of the first act.” Having seen the film, Rockwell says, “I thought I’d love to play to Regina George,” the Plastics’ fearsome leader. “But as I’ve gotten older, comedy has become sort of my bread and butter.” And the creators as well as director Casey Nicholaw thought she would be a great fit for the goofy babe introduced on screen by a young Amanda Seyfried.
“I did go back and watch the film when we started the audition process, but I haven’t watched it since,” says Rockwell, who creates a very distinct character on stage, largely thanks to her quirky mannerisms and standout Halloween-themed number, “Sexy.” “I didn’t want to try to recreate what Amanda did so brilliantly. Fifteen years have gone by, and there were things Tina wanted to update, or, in her words, ‘fix.’”
On stage, for instance, the Plastics wield smartphones. “Karen with social media access is different than Karen without it,” Rockwell says. “I imagine she can spend hours watching cat videos, or searching YouTube for beauty tips.”
Growing up in Ohio in the 1990s, Rockwell -- who admits to being “a bottle blonde” -- had little in common with the character she’s currently playing. “I was not the prettiest version of me, and I was not popular. But I saw those girls in such a hyperfocused way, and I think the attention I paid to them helped give me a unique voice in playing a person like that.”
Before appearing in Legally Blonde, in which she also understudied the part of Elle, Rockwell competed on NBC’s 2007 reality series Grease: You’re The One That I Want!, vying for the role of Sandy in a Broadway revival that ultimately launched the career of Laura Osnes. “I was 22, just out of college, and essentially doing a live audition on TV every week,” Rockwell recalls. “I quickly learned to not trust reality TV. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons I kept my passion for live theater, because of its authenticity.”
Of playing a succession of teenage characters still loved by both young adults and a new generation of adolescents, Rockwell quips, “In another life, I’d be old enough to have a teenager. But being part of this cultural moment gives me an opportunity to connect with young girls in another way.” Mean Girls’ advocacy, beyond its broad satire, of self-determination “is especially important,” she adds, “now that women are being told that it’s OK to be strong and powerful, to do what you want to do.”
As one of just a few married actors in the cast, Rockwell notes, “I can feel like an anomaly sometimes. People look at my ring, and they must think, ‘Oh, right -- you’re old.’” She met her husband, a former actor now working in hospitality, while on tour with Legally Blonde. “He’s my teammate and partner. But it’s fun to watch my castmates who are not in serious relationships; I get to live vicariously through their dating apps.”
While performing eight shows a week, Rockwell is also squeezing in time to promote her first solo album, cannily titled Back to My Roots. The songs trace what she calls “the second Golden Age of musical theater,” from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. “It’s the music that inspired me to do this as a career, by people like William Finn and Andrew Lloyd Webber.” Rockwell cites the part of struggling wife and mom Trina in Finn’s Falsettos, in fact, as her “absolute dream role” in musical theater.
“I’m aware that I can’t play 17-year-olds forever,” says Rockwell. “I’d love to do a Noel Coward play at some point, to get into that classic, slam-the-door comedy. I’d also love to do a sitcom; that idea of living in a character, getting new material every week, is so cool. Are you listening, Tina?”