Thoroughly Modern Millie tells the story of Kansas transplant Millie Dilmount and her quest to embrace the lifestyle of a modern woman, ripped from the pages of Vogue, in 1922 New York. As much as the 2002 Tony-winning Best Musical is a love story about making it in the big city, the show’s major subplot centers on “white slavery.” Hotel Priscilla owner Mrs. Meers (an actor past her prime disguised as an old Chinese woman) drugs young women without families and ships them to Hong Kong with the help of two Chinese henchman, Bun Foo and Ching Ho. (This subplot was part of the original film, starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore.)
Over the years, many have come to question the political correctness—or lack thereof—of these characters; some consider the script inherently racist. But after the 15th anniversary reunion concert, actor Francis Jue, who originated the role of Bun Foo, shed light on the writing and performance of these characters.
“I have always thought that the Chinese guys and Mrs. Meers are the most revolutionary part of this show,” Jue told Playbill. “To actually have real Chinese guys singing and speaking in their own language and meaning it, and to link their immigrant story to the same story as Millie and Jimmy and Muzzy, all these people who just want to be their best selves and come to America because of the American Dream, all these people who come to New York to reinvent themselves and be modern—I think is exactly what the Chinese guys are all about.”
As a member of the original cast, Jue collaborated with the show’s creative team to craft the characters. He remembers constantly re-working Bun Foo and Ching Ho during the 2000 out-of-town tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse and leading up to the Broadway run.
“We had lots of discussion and [writer] Dick Scanlan and [composer] Jeanine Tesori and [director] Michael Mayer turned to me and [original Ching Ho] Ken Leung and said, ‘You guys have to be our barometers. You guys have to tell us and let us know,’” Jue said. “We talked about different drafts and different things. I was so looking forward to tonight because it’s another opportunity to cast shade on racist attitudes and assumptions about us and what we know and how smart we are and what we’re capable of, and that’s what the show offered us—it always did. I have always maintained that any show you do can be racist if you do it racist. This show can be done racist but it doesn’t have to and actually it can actually be anti-racist. That message [of the brothers] is the same as Millie’s empowerment and the same as Muzzy’s empowerment. And the Chinese guys are the heroes of the story: Ching Ho gets the girl, I make enough money to get mom over. I feel like the Chinese guys triumph in this show.”
Look Back at Thoroughly Modern Millie on Its 16th Anniversary
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.