They met as Jets — a pair of 15-year-olds pretending to be New Yorkers — rumbling through a disco edition of West Side Story in the basement of the then-unfinished Rockville Mall in suburban Maryland. Michael Mayer was Action, and Dick Scanlan was Arab, and this Wildwood Summer Theatre production was "truly terrible. . . the stuff of legend," but a friendship of importance came out of it, exists to this day and even thrives.
Mayer and Scanlan are now a pair of 41-year-olds overseeing a new crop of pretend New Yorkers "flappering" their way through a $9.5-million Roaring Twenties musical at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway, Thoroughly Modern Millie. A quarter century separates these hopeful youths from their creators, but young dreams of making it big in Manhattan know no calendar.
"Michael'll tell you," says Scanlan of the Summer of '76 when they passed for dancing delinquents. "I used to bring in The New York Times from the one place in Rockville that sold it, and we'd go through it. I was planning a trip to New York, and I'd pick what shows to see, what restaurants to eat at. It was my dream — and his, too."
Fifteen years passed before they hooked up again — in New York, of course — and by then Manhattan, as it does with fresh-faced kids from Maryland (or, in the case of their Millie, Kansas), had made them into something other than what they set out to become. Scanlan, doing a freelance piece for The Village Voice, found himself interviewing his old friend about directing an early NYU edition of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Perestroika.
"I never thought about directing," admits Mayer. "I studied at NYU in the graduate acting program and sorta fell into directing when my acting career was languishing. I realized when I was not cast in any of the Matthew Broderick parts in any of the Neil Simon plays that I must really suck. That's what started me thinking about directing. A lot of my friends who've come here passionate about theatre have had their courses changed." If necessity is the mother of invention, then New York must be the midwife. Cases in point: Millie's composer and choreographer, Jeanine Tesori and Rob Ashford. "Jeanine was a dance director and a musical arranger," says Mayer. "She didn't know she was going to be a composer. Rob just started out as a dancer — a fantastic dancer in so many Broadway shows. His ambition was not to be a choreographer. We all came to these places from working in New York.
"That's the story of Millie, too. She thinks the way to get what she wants is to marry a rich man, and what New York does to her — what it does to all of us — is shake us up, and we suddenly start to reassess our priorities and find ourselves leading different lives than we might have had. I think all of us with this show can identify with her journey."
Scanlan agrees: "I never knew I would be a writer, and I never thought I'd write a show and have it on Broadway. I didn't know I could do these things until I had the need to do them. When I first came to New York 20 years ago, I felt I was lying when I told people I was coming here to be an actor. Truth was, I was coming here just to come here. I'd say, 'I'm going to be an actor,' but I really wanted to put a period after the word be. 'I'm going to be.' All I knew was it'd happen in New York."
Basically, that message came over loud and clear, amid all the slapstick and Charlestoning going on in Thoroughly Modern Millie, when he caught the 1967 movie on TV eight years ago. "It just struck me as wonderfully untapped material for a stage musical. I thought, 'You have some really colorful, idiosyncratic characters here, and they all want something' — the same thing I wanted — something that involved New York.
"Miss Dorothy [Mary Tyler Moore in the movie/Angela Christian in the show] wanted to be an actress. Millie [Julie Andrews/Sutton Foster] wanted a modern lifestyle you could only do in a city like New York. Trevor Graydon [John Gavin/Marc Kudisch] wanted to run a certain kind of business that only happens in New York. Muzzy [Carol Channing/ Sheryl Lee Ralph] was a chorus girl who came with nothing and found her dream. Mrs. Meers [Beatrice Lillie/Harriet Harris] did not find her dream, or her dream was evil. All wanted things very much based in this city. Right away, I felt connected."
Composer Tesori is that rarity — a native New Yorker — but she melds well with the out-of-towners on the creative team. "We talk about every song moment," she insists. "Dick and I have written, sometimes, ten songs for one placement. I knew, for me as a composer, there wasn't room to put my voice in. It's more about bringing a wholeness to the piece." She started out writing incidental music that merged vintage tunes with songs from the film, but her job started swelling till now it's two-thirds an original score.
Scanlan, who suddenly added lyricist to his resume during this growth, says Tesori is as expert at storytelling as she is at composing. For starters, she's the only one on the show who has racked up college credit on The Twenties. Her research on the subject, in fact, produced a team motto that now adorns her computer: "In order to live in New York, you have to be willing to be lucky." Millie and her minions are clearly keeping that thought.