“Everything today is thoroughly modern” That’s a lyric from the title song of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. This is a newer show, but its structure, use of songs and book is old fashioned and at the same refreshing for the modern musical theatre.
In this and the next blog posting I want to discuss some of the background of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and musical theatre in general. While none of this is necessary to enjoy the show, a little extra knowledge makes you feel smart and you can show off your knowledge to your friends during intermission and they will think you are brilliant.
First, the history of the show.
The story of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is fairly straight forward and rather typical of a musical had it been written in the 20s, 30s or early 40s. A young girl arrives in New York City straight off the farm in Kansas. She has the goal of finding her new life in the exciting city and gets caught up in a zany adventure, which ends happily ever after. That’s the show in a nutshell, if you’re looking for anything deeper, sorry.
Michael Mayer, who directed the Broadway production, described the story as paralleling The Wizard of Oz. He told Playbill, “She comes from Kansas to the Emerald City…to find her heart’s desire – or what she thinks is her heart’s desire.”
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” as you may or may not know was actually a movie in 1967 which starred Julie Andrews and was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won one for Best Music. Carol Channing won a Golden Globe for her performance as Muzzy. I have never seen the movie straight through though I did catch part of it on TV years ago and I thought it was weird. It is criticized today for being too campy.
The stage version came to Broadway in 2002. It was an eight year process to get the musical produced. Dick Scanlan, who wrote the lyrics for the new songs in the stage version and co-wrote the new book, said what drew him to the show was the idea of someone coming to New York City to find something, not sure what that is but knowing that it’s in New York.
It was not an easy sell for Scanlan to get permission to adapt the show. He approached Richard Morris, who had written the screenplay. He called him and made the pitch as Morris politely listened and then Morris yelled, “No!” and slammed down the phone. As Scanlan tells it, he soon appeared on Morris’ doorstep and he finally gave in.
Adapting the movie created the need for many changes, according to Mayer, “It’s so different than the “Millie” Movie.” He went on to say, “It’s the basic story…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.”
Composer of the new music Jeanne Tesori agrees saying in an interview with the New York Times, “It’s like someone saying to you: “You’re going to write a novel. Here’s the first page and here’s the last page.” You have to make something that literally goes in between.”
The show turned out to be a hit on Broadway opening in April of 2002 and playing for 903 performances. It won six Tony Awards including Best Musical. It also won newcomer Sutton Foster a Tony for her performance as Millie. A little bit of trivia that I found interesting is that Sutton’s brother is actor Hunter Foster who at the time was staring in “Urinetown” which was up against “Thoroughly Modern Millie” for best musical.
So now you know some of the basic history of the show. Next week we will discuss how “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is different from many contemporary musicals and the classic formula for writing a musical and how this show makes perfect use of it.
CP Managing Artistic Director