Many observers might think an actor joins a play with his or her role all sewn up by the authors and ready to perform. Not so with Harriet Harris, who has won a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Mrs. Meers, the outrageous caricature of a villainous Asian innkeeper white slaver which menaces the young actresses in Thoroughly Modern Millie.
"I did a workshop of Millie a long time ago," Harris revealed. The creators of the show decided "to expand the role of Mrs. Meers from the movie and do it kind of differently. Which I think was a good idea. You don't want to be compared to Beatrice Lillie," who played the part in the original 1967 movie. "You're not going to stand up well. I think they knew it would have to be a different take on the part and they decided she would be an actress.
"Given that, I said, well, she's an actress—why can't she be playing a part? Maybe she could be in disguise." Harris hatched the idea of making Meers an ancient Chinese madame, complete with kimono, slippers and shiny black wig pierced by chopsticks.
"That way, you can have the sinister flavor that the Orient used to hold [for Westerners] and have that wonderful connection with the Chinese workers that are her co-horts. And yet, have it not be real."
Not surprisingly, the director was wary of the idea. "Michael Mayer asked, `Well, how would that happen?' And I said, `I'd have a really bad accent.' He said, `Oooohhh, I don't know about that.'" To persuade Mayer et al, Harris offered to run the notion by the actors who played the Chinese workers. If they hated the idea, she'd abandon it. Harris then showed them what she intended to do, accent and all. "There was a moment of silence," she remembered, "and then they both broke up and said that's really funny."
Harris tested the approach again at the La Jolla Playhouse, where the show debuted, and again won out.
Did she always have faith her comic instincts would prevail? "No! You never know what's going to be funny or atrocious. You just try things. You send them out there."
Meers' big song, "They Don't Know," also went through some big changes, as Harris explained: "Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan wrote five or six versions of that song. The version I'm doing now they put in five days before critics started to come. But there were a number of versions. They knew she had to have a song, because you had to be able to figure out the inner workings of this person.
"The first song was more about her frustration [of not being a successful actress]; the second song was about her pain; the third song was strictly a comic song. In one of the first versions, it was broken up into comic monologues and I was doing Eliza Doolittle and being Camille. And that, I loved. But they said the best part about it were the breaks outside the song. Finally, Dick Scanlan said, `They're not interested in your pain. They just want to see you be really bad.'
"I'm surprised they worked so hard on it and didn't just say, `Forget it! You don't get a song!'" Harris laughed.