Almost 20 years after Lauren Weisberger’s novel and 16 years since Meryl Streep sent chills down our spines in the film of The Devil Wears Prada, a new musical version has premiered at Chicago’s James M. Nederlander’s Theatre, in its pre-Broadway tryout. This pandemic-plagued world premiere, with many cast members out due to COVID and understudies stepping up, wraps up this week, selling out with local audiences despite hostile reviews by pent-up critics, many from out of town, seemingly hell bent on baring their teeth.
This new adaptation takes the popular movie by its horns, retaining reference points for the film’s devotees while updating the story for these less innocent yet more sensitive times. Since the film’s release, after all, we’ve gone through four presidents, an economic downturn, and more recently cultural reckonings around our personal and social values via #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, not to mention a pandemic and a new war in Europe. In development since 2017, and twice delayed by COVID-19, the new musical Devil is directed by Anna Shapiro, with music by Elton John, lyrics and song arrangements by singer/songwriter Shaina Taub, book by actress and writer Kate Wetherhead (Submissions Only), and choreography by James Alsop (Girls5Eva).
The story still centers on top college grad Andy (Taylor Iman Jones), who banks her writing chops and ambitions to take an assistant job under egomaniac Miranda Priestly (Beth Leavel). It’s a job meant to open doors for Andy, but instead Andy is the one physically opening doors while getting humiliated to boot. For the indoctrinated, gigs in glamor—not unlike those in the theatre—are privileges unto themselves, no matter the hours or pay. Andy, though whiplashed by the brutal reality of such thankless work, is cut from the same determined cloth as her boss, making her both the perfect victim and ultimate survivor of Miranda’s terrors.
With characters that are simultaneously more woke and au courant, this new Devil is poised to resonate with today’s audiences, groups sure to comprise many who have endured their own workplace devils and those (i.e., younger folks) who would let hell freeze first. Even Miranda herself in this version is a more dimensional take on Streep’s Cruella-like diva, who would be slapped with 101 lawsuits before barking out her last orders today. How, in the age of the Great Resignation, can the script make it credible that an educated and ambitious Gen Z woman would submit to this hazing?
Navigating this tall order is writer Kate Wetherhead, making her bookwriting debut with a hit movie and Elton John’s name looming large. Wetherhead said she hoped to update the show, but write “as if she could have been part of the original creative team,” emulating, for example, the original’s “style of putdown.” When asked if it was hard to unhear the famous screenplay, she replied, “I view the enduring response to the movie as an asset. The memes, the gifs, the think pieces, the TikToks—they more or less told me what was essential to preserve. Beyond that, my goal was to streamline the story in a way that preserves the basic plot structure without feeling obligated to include every single moment depicted in the film.”
Wetherhead called her co-writing process with lyricist Taub—who herself worked hand-in-glove with Sir Elton on the compositions and arrangements—very close, saying, “There’s really no way for us to work independently of each other, at least not for very long. In musicals, the most successful songs are ones that carry the story forward. So it’s up to Shaina and me to determine the best way to keep moving the story along, deciding how we want to divvy up the ‘real estate’ of the show: what’s more impactful as a book scene, what’s more impactful as a song. To me, good musicals really are about the journey, not the destination, so we want to make sure our journey is deeply satisfying.”
Taken together, Wetherhead and Taub’s words form a conversation with the original work, and offer a deeper dive into the story’s themes. Sung and spoken text dovetail seamlessly with dialogue appearing in tempo within the body of songs. Taub’s lyrics are a rewarding romp through wit and rhyme, capitalizing on the lingo of today: “Who has time for handbags when democracy’s at stake?/A Type-A Gen-Z feminist has bigger moves to make.” This line is from the show’s third number, “The Interview,” a patter song in which Miranda deploys a classic from her manipulator’s toolbox, the “I know you better than you know yourself” technique, as Wetherhead puts it:
Soon leaders and celebrities
Will write you gushy notes
Your book will oft be quoted
On expensive mugs and totes
You clearly have a future
Full of influence and choice
So how could a place like Runway
Help you “find your voice”?
Another manipulator’s trick: Miranda has made Andy feel that she’s the guilty one, an insincere fool biased against the misunderstood industry she’s begging to employ her.
On first viewing, the film The Devil Wears Prada might have seemed like little more than a gleefully sadistic diversion. Revisiting it, however, one can glimpse the ingredients for something more complex (in the novel too). It has aged well. In the musical theatre, with songs that “invite deeper emotional engagement from the audience,” as Wetherhead puts it, these ingredients are especially heightened when it comes to the character of Miranda’s longtime creative director, Nigel, played by Stanley Tucci in the film and matched in the musical by Javier Muñoz. Nigel is painfully dignified, as Miranda’s far-longer-standing prey; at 47, he’s given 30 years of his prime to her masterfully dangled carrots. Yet his is not a tale of regret: Once a queer Midwestern boy, Nigel feels that his life was saved by fashion, and he will never forget it. After being famously jilted, he recoils at Andy’s pity, making it clear that his life and choices are intentional. In counterpoint to her still-green naïveté, Nigel’s is a nuanced approach to beauty, happiness, and success.
Nuance is also evident on the topic of inner versus outer beauty. In Act I Nigel urges Andy to get with the program via the song “Dress Your Way Up,” divulging more of his realist’s worldview: “If you can’t judge a book by its cover, no one’s ever gonna read it/If you’re so damn smart, then start looking the part, Lord knows you’re gonna need it.”
One can rue or own this truth. “Wanna open doors? Wanna get yours? Want an ego boost? Wanna get introduced?” Nigel’s answer to all these questions is: Dress your way up! However the fashion-averse may feel about this, dressing up is certainly more empowering than sleeping your way up, a memo given previous generations. And there is joy in it: For all of Andy’s initial misgivings about the limitations of glamor, if self-reliance is the name of the game, then “dressing up” is a wonderful tool to use in pursuit of one’s dreams. Just make sure you can afford it.
In the end, Andy finds the cost is too great. After a mere 10-month dance with the devil, she leaves with a sense of style and realpolitik that will serve her well. She’s also defined what she doesn’t want, what she won’t endure, and she did without getting fired or quitting before achieving success. As one early number has it, she was the “Girl for the Job.”
This leads me to a preoccupation I’ve long had about this story and its real-life corollaries, most famously Anna Wintour and Vogue, which it’s all but officially based on. (Wintour denies remembering her assistant Weisberger and has admitted to liking the movie.) Is it, or was it ever, necessary to abuse your way up? Through my own life and leadership experiences, I’ve come to believe it must be possible to reach the top without being a monster. It has to be.
As Andy reckons after flirting with an ego trip in a number called “Who’s She” that explores what it means to be “someone”: “If I succeed, let it be with integrity.” A motto for anyone doing business today: How you treat people not only matters on a personal level; workplace mistreatment is out of vogue. The devil’s party may be over—at least, the enormous success of a show like Ted Lasso may point that way. The angel now wears tracksuits.
Hard as it may make it to staff up organizations, the post-pandemic sea change stems from the workforce figuring out that killing oneself so the rich can get richer is a mug’s game. Fair warning to abusive bosses everywhere: You can now be MeanToo-ed as well. Devil, then, becomes a kind of swan song for the imperial leader who is not only less and less employable but no longer interesting in real life. Let them entertain us from the safe remove of stage and screen while we manage to save our souls.
If one function of art is to provoke thought, then this new Devil musical—critics aside—succeeds beyond entertainment, holding up an incisive mirror, with no fabulousness spared. With some more development (and less COVID), by the time this devil reaches Broadway, my bet is that she’ll fill those towering shoes.
Cassandra Csencsitz (she/her) is an arts and travel writer in New York City. She is also a co-owner of Gotham Restaurant, where she is fostering initiatives to promote New York theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!