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From Garrettsville to Broadway

Local experiences influence Ohio native’s career

For Jeff Richmond, the journey from Garrettsville to writing music for television and Broadway started at Packard Music Hall.

Richmond said he’s “100 percent sure” he was bit by the musical theater bug going to see Kenley Players productions in Warren in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

“You’re here in Ohio and suddenly you get to go backstage and have your book signed by Dom DeLuise or Kitty Carlisle,” he said during a telephone interview from his office. “It left such an impression on me. I want to be a part of this world. I was lucky to be in a place where that musical theater, that musical stunt-casting, theater show-biz smartness was around.”

Richmond earned a Tony nomination in 2018 for best score for “Mean Girls,” and the national tour of the musical opens Tuesday for a three-week run at the Connor Palace in Cleveland.

John Kenley, founder of the summer stock theater that used Packard Music Hall as one of its locations from 1958 to 1977, also made an impression on the young Richmond.

“John Kenley would sit in the lobby,” he said. “You’d see him around, and he was very approachable. I’d say, ‘Hello, I want to do this some day,’ and he would give you advice and then do splits in the lobby. It was like meeting Willy Wonka.”

Kenley Players is one of several things that influenced him growing up. His mother taught tap dancing, and the Broadway cast recordings dominated the family’s record collection. An early influence on the comedic sensibilities of a man who went on to write music for comedy sketches with Second City in Chicago and for “Saturday Night Live” (as well as winning three Emmy Awards as a producer of the sitcom “30 Rock”) was Cleveland movie hosts “Hoolihan and Big Chuck” and “Big Chuck and Li’l John.”

“That’s the first thing that made an impression on my brain as far as television,” Richmond said. “Was it schlocky? Absolutely. Was it funny? Funny enough. I grew to absolutely love them. It made me want to watch the ‘Carol Burnett Show’ and other comedy variety shows.”

Richmond also has fond memories of the shows he did in school, starting with a production of the musical “Oliver” at James A. Garfield Junior High School.

“That first show made a big impression on me,” Richmond said. “I played Fagin, and I was shorter than any of the other workhouse boys, the pickpocket boys … I loved it. I loved the wig and beard I got to wear, the tiny orchestra made up of people in town. The mayor played the bass. It was very rewarding to be around that whole thing, that sense of performing for the community.”

These days Richmond works for bigger audiences.

“Mean Girls,” which is in its second year on Broadway as well as touring, is one of Richmond’s many collaborations with his wife, Tina Fey, who wrote the screenplay and had a supporting role in the 2004 hit film of the same name.

The musical tells the story of Cady, who has been living in Kenya with her parents. When the family moves to suburban Chicago, Cady has to learn to live with a different kind of wild life — the different cliques at her new high school, particularly the popular girls, led by “Queen Bee” Regina George.

The score displays the breadth of Richmond’s musical knowledge, mixing contemporary Broadway style songs with melodies that could have come from the classic musicals he saw at Kenley Players.

“I didn’t want to write a score that was basically a generic, pop-music Broadway score,” he said. “I was shooting for something honest to each character’s voice.”

That meant classic Broadway songbook for gay teen Damian, a rock influence for the songs sung by Cady’s goth friend Janis and melodies worthy of a James Bond villain for Regina.

“We weren’t going to be bridled with the idea that everybody had to sing from the same landscape,” Richmond said.

Richmond and Fey have worked together since their Second City days. Collaborating on “Mean Girls” was a little different because when Fey was head writer on “SNL” and creator of “30 Rock,” she clearly was the boss.

“Writing a new musical theater piece, the entire creative team (writer, composer, lyricist and director) is 25 percent and no one outweighs the others,” he said, but then added that Fey really was the boss on this project as well.

The partnership will continue with “67 Shots,” a film based on the 1970 Kent State shootings, in which four people were killed and nine others were wounded after the Ohio National Guard opened fire during an anti-war protest. Richmond, a Kent grad, and Fey are producing the film.

“I really think it’s moving along,” he said. “I can’t go into specifics, but I think it’s going to be happening. It’s still in our top tier of things we’re moving forward with. That story is so of our time right now.”