When the curtain rises on the first preview of Thoroughly Modern Millie March 19 at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, audiences will see a forlorn girl from Kansas, suitcase in hand, standing before the glittering New York City of 1922.
Director Michael Mayer told Playbill On-Line Feb. 6 that Thoroughly Modern Millie (inspired by the 1967 Julie Andrews film of the same name) has parallels to "The Wizard of Oz," that classic tale of another girl from Kansas finding herself in a brave new world.
"I love the 'Wizard of Oz' element to it," Mayer said. "It's Dorothy coming from Kansas. That's how it was originally written, but they changed it because Julie Andrews is British. She comes from Kansas to the Emerald City, she goes over the rainbow to Oz, to find her heart's desire — or what she thinks is her heart's desire. There's a good witch, and a bad witch. She meets all these colorful characters along the way. The journey she thinks is external is actually internal, and she doesn't have to go back to Kansas at the end. That's the great part, she can stay in Oz!"
The "Dorothy" in question in the new Broadway musical — with book by Dick Scanlan and original screenwriter Richard Morris, lyrics by Scanlan, and music by Jeanine Tesori — is newcomer Sutton Foster, playing a young woman who reinvents herself in an era of great cultural change in America. Among the "colorful characters" she meets along the are love interest Jimmy (Gavin Creel), fellow hotel resident Miss Dorothy (Angela Christian), serious bachelor-businessman Trevor Graydon (Marc Kudisch), corrupt hotelier Mrs. Meers (Harriet Harris), who serves as a kind of "bad witch"; Chinese immigrants Bun Foo (Francis Jue) and Ching Ho (Ken Leung); Josephine Baker-style diva Muzzy Van Hossmere (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who serves as a kind of "good witch"; and Miss Flannery (Anne L. Nathan), the steno-pool matron who gets what's likely to be a show-stopping tap break.
"It's so different than the 'Millie' movie," Mayer admitted. "The heart of the play is the same as the movie. It's the basic story, and they do tap dance in the elevator — the things people know about the film are there. But the movie is used as the shell of an idea. We're using it as source material — it's not trying to take the movie and put it on stage. We're only using two-and-a-half songs from the movie." One of things Mayer said he loves about the project is that it has personalities on stage following years of huge ensemble shows where characters seemed to blend together.
"We've learned the show is a fantastic opportunity for performers to do their thing," Mayer explained. "It's a great platform for a variety of performers to give it their all. It's got that musical revue quality to it, in the same way that the classic musicals do, so people can shine individually. Instead of being interchangeable [as in an ensemble-driven show], it's an opportunity for individual performance to really inform the character. It's not a cookie cutter thing."
With nine principal parts, everybody gets a moment in the sun. At a rehearsal-hall press preview held Feb. 6 in Manhattan, Sheryl Lee Ralph's slinky, blues-flecked "Only in New York" stood out in contrast to Foster's upbeat "Not for the Life of Me" and the bubbly title tune, which were both in further contrast to the itchy I'm-not-in-love song for Jimmy, "What Do I Need With Love?" The cast exploded with the Act Two ensemble number, "Forget About the Boy," in which Millie resolves to banish her love and inspires her typist co-workers to axe their men, too. The score has 18 songs by Tesori and Scanlan, plus the film's "Jimmy" (by Jay Thompson, sweetened by Tesori and Scanlan) and the film's title song by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn.
Thoroughly Modern Millie had a tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2000 and continued developing over the past year, with some cast changes, including the addition of Christian (James Joyce's The Dead), Ralph (a Dreamgirls Tony Award nominee) and Harris (Roundabout's The Man Who Came to Dinner, who joined Millie in the last week of the La Jolla run). The collaborators all said that La Jolla taught them the show was stageworthy, and that an audience liked the people and the world of the show. But their challenge was to tighten the script and flesh out the wants and needs of the characters.
"We learned so much in La Jolla," said choreographer Rob Ashford. "We learned where we needed more, where we needed less. The spine of the show is the same [as in La Jolla], but in the places where there was a number, now it's just a better number. We've added a couple of people to the cast. Many of the numbers are new."
What kind of research did Ashford do?
"There were dozens of dances that were popular," he said of the time period. "Almost everything was based on the Charleston. So, the dream is to take those basic steps, use them as a foundation, and then kind of rough 'em up a bit and make it a little more current."
Noting that not everybody was dancing "modern" in 1922, Ashford added, "We have a couple characters, Trevor and Miss Dorothy, who are a little Victorian in the way that they think and the way that they work. We try to save the turn-of-the century [dances] for them. We push the ensemble and Millie in the modern [dance styles], to be a little more edgy."
Of Sutton Foster, whose major roles have been on tours in Les Misérables, Grease!, The Will Rogers Follies and the 20th anniversary of Annie (which she also did on Broadway, playing the Star-to-Be), Ashford said, "To have a leading lady who can dance your opening number down front, it's a dream. That doesn't happen very often. Sutton is that, with those long legs in the air, and she can do it. It's a treat."
Ashford said he and his colleagues wanted to get away from the "cute" quality of the film, and it's clear there is nothing dainty about Ashford's work. It has muscle and power.
"That's the idea," Ashford explained. "It was muscular at that time. The challenge is to get away from The Boyfriend and No, No Nanette and that kind of '20s feel where everything was a comment on the period and not truly the period. New York in the '20s was going crazy! Things were being built — a lot of energy and a lot of dynamics and a lot change. We're trying to infuse that into the choreography. We don't want to feel like we're in a memory play."
Christian, who plays a somewhat refined Miss Dorothy — a lady with a secret in her past and a hope for the future — said that so much of the show is about embracing the city. She said what the characters go through relates to what actors go through all the time. "Beside the fact that it's a valentine to New York, it's also a validation for all of us being here — a validation of our journeys coming to New York to try to make something of ourselves," Christian said. "Each person, who is never what they seem, has a super-objective to make something more of themselves. That's true of people who come to New York."
Composer Tesori agreed. "Everybody knows that moment when they first got here," Tesori said. "One of the things we needed to do was open with Millie and give her a big number to say, 'This is where I wanna be, this is what I want.' Every single person knows that feeling. It's universal."
Scanlan, a novelist, writer and journalist who initiated Millie over the last decade, working with the film's screenwriter Richard Morris until his death, said he took inspiration from the lyricist Lorenz Hart, who was working with Richard Rodgers in the 1920s.
"Often if you write witty and clever lyrics that are really adept at language, you lose a little bit of heart," observed Scanlan. "And often when you write very heartfelt lyrics, you lose a little bit of wit and cleverness. Hart could do both at the same time, in a way that no one else could. He could break your heart and do it with such sophistication."
Scanlan, who does not have a major credit as a theatre lyricist, shows in his work that perfect rhymes and craft are important — just as they were to Hart, Ira Gershwin and others of the golden age of pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein American musicals. "I choose to hold myself to the older standard which is the right one for me," Scanlan said. "I think pop writers are not even trying to do what I do. I don't think they're lazy, they have a whole different set of rules. They are just not my rules."
Tesori, who scored the critically acclaimed cult musical, Violet (with lyricist Brian Crawley), said she didn't listen to Kern and Gershwin and Rodgers. That stuff is already in her head. "What I tend to do on projects is I do a whole lot of listening for some weeks and then I put it away," Tesori said. "For me, it was more about the dance bands of the period. I listened to the early Louis Armstrong. It's fresh, his take on music."
How did Millie, Sutton Foster, prepare for the role?
"I did a lot of work this summer," Foster told Playbill On-Line. "I did a lot of stuff on the internet and looked at tons of photographs. I wanted lots of images of women, of what they wore and how they stood, and read about what women went through with the suffrage movement, and how women were liberated — all the sudden they took claim of their bodies and their persons."
In the press preview, it was clear that Millie is a potent woman who grabs at the world. "I'm a strong woman," Foster said, adding that she relates to "someone who's so tenacious and so full of determination and willing to break free of upbringing that wasn't allowing that: A girl from nowhere finally saying, 'No more, I'm not gonna deal with that.' Finally saying, 'I'm gonna take charge of my life!'"
Foster identifies with holding a suitcase in her hand and standing before the open city. She moved to New York five years ago. "Absolutely," she said. "Me being an actor and moving to city and going, 'I have nothing, I have no thing for myself and going, 'All right, I will try with all my might.'"
Here comes Thoroughly Modern Millie now.