Performances Magazine

The Music Center

July 2004


Modernizing "Millie"




Theatregoers should be grateful for the discerning taste of Dick Scanlan's Hampton houseguests. Without their intervention, we might have witnessed a theatricalization of the porn epic Caligula rather than Scanlan's Tony-winning stage version of the 1967 Universal musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. By coincidence, Scanlan relates, those were the two films he had on videotape in a summer house where he spent a number of months back in 1988. "They had no cable reception there, and this was before the days of Blockbuster, and video stores open till 2 a.m.; video stores were little stores that closed at 6."


But he did have his VCR, and those two movies to watch. For the whole summer. "Every weekend we'd have friends over, and after dinner I gave them a choice of movies to watch, and they kept choosing Thoroughly Modern Millie," Scanlan recalls. The fortuitous result: "I saw the film a lot. It wasn't like I would sit there and watch it all the way through every time. I'd come in, watch a scene, go out. It was like it was on a constant loop in the house." Before that summer, Scanlan--journalist, novelist, and former Off-Broadway actor--hadn't given much thought to Millie, which he remembers seeing on its 1967 release. "I saw it when it came out, and I got the soundtrack for my 7th or 8th birthday," he recounts. "But it wasn't a film that lived high in my consciousness."


Nor most people's: Though it was among the year's biggest box-office hits, "It had no shelf life at all," Scanlan says. "Within five years of its release, it was forgotten, or to the extent that it was remembered, it was as a joke." Indeed, the film, written by Richard Morris (The Unsinkable Molly Brown) and directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting), ranks among Hollywood's more peculiar musicals. Set in a Prohibition-era New York but shot with a conspicuously 1960s-style Technicolor splash, it tells the story of a young single woman from Kansas who comes to the big city looking for a husband. Her chosen method is particularly unromantic, hence, in her mind, "modern": She'll find an eligible bachelor businessman, become his stenographer, and lure him for a dip in the typing pool, as it were.


Along the way Millie, played by Julie Andrews, encounters a rich airhead, Miss Dorothy (Mary Tyler Moore, unrecognizably kittenish and pliant), and a quirky, bespectacled young man, Jimmy Smith (James Fox), who blithely gets the three of them into minor scrapes--and who turns out to be a more worthy love interest than Millie could have imagined. Seen today, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a throwback to the fading years of the old studio system, with all the plush production values you'd expect from producer Ross Hunter (the man who brought us Pillow Talk) and a score that's a hodgepodge of period pieces, novelty tunes, and a few originals by various composers.


What exactly did repeated viewings of this oddly flavored confection reveal to Dick Scanlan? "I began to be intrigued that inside this silly, bloated movie were three things," Scanlan explains. "Number one, there's the story of these three young people, who are--by implication, though it's not really stated in the film--profoundly unhappy with the lives they've been born to lead. For Millie, it's the small-town, provincial sort of life and values she's escaping. And for Dorothy and Jimmy, it's an extreme, almost Kennedy-esque wealth, and the isolation and pretension that comes with that."


He also noticed that despite their very different backgrounds, all three have come to the same city to remake themselves. "I found that really striking. I think that's a very substantial impulse. It's also sort of the American impulse: ÔI don't like my life, I'm going to change it.' That concept is the ether, the fuel of our democracy."


He also took note of "how idiosyncratic the characters are. They're not stock characters; they're really extreme."


The final clue that there might be more to Millie than first met his eye, or ear, was that "the way language was used in the film was sort of sly and delicious. I realized there was someone working here who had a voice as a writer."


That voice belonged to Richard Morris, a screenwriter and novelist who'd achieved a certain degree of success but never wide acclaim in Hollywood. Scanlan tracked Morris down, called him, and pitched the idea of adapting Millie into a stage musical. Morris' initial answer was a terse "no" and a dial tone. "It took me a long time to convince him to do this," Scanlan recalls. "He didn't collaborate--well, he collaborated with Meredith Willson on Unsinkable Molly Brown, but otherwise he had always been a solo act."


Undeterred, Scanlan "appeared" on Morris' doorstep in Los Angeles, and "we met and hit it off." The bicoastal writing partnership had Scanlan writing scenes in New York and sending them to Morris for rewrites and suggestions. "The great gift was, he had written it initially, so he was aware that none of it was sacred," Scanlan says. "He was tremendously proud of the movie, but he was also the first to be critical of parts of the movie. Richard felt about all of his work that there was the germ of something wonderful, and that he had never quite gotten there. He blamed other people and himself for that, and he welcomed the opportunity to revisit Millie and perhaps make it better."


It wasn't easy going, though. Scanlan spent eight years bringing it to Broadway, during which time Morris died of cancer. "It was much, much more challenging than I realized it would be," Scanlan recalls. "Whenever you adapt something, you have a story that exists--although this stage version is more rewritten than probably any stage version of a film. But you go in with limitations, and sometimes limitations are great for art--they really let you fly. And sometimes they're like handcuffs."


Among the toughest challenges of the original was an odd subplot involving a "white slavery" ring run out of the boarding house where Millie and Dorothy reside. In the film, this racket is run by shady-looking Asians who slink about, drugging and absconding with their prey in their rolling laundry cart. "That was one of our huge issues, how to deal with that," Scanlan admits. "There were people who thought I should eliminate the two Asian guys, and make them Mafia, because that's still an acceptable stereotype. And I thought, that's a strange way to try to rectify a wrong against Asians--by eliminating roles for Asian actors. There must a way for them to be Asian yet have them be three-dimensional, not evil."


The solution involved giving the two Chinese men names, aspirations, an indentured-immigrant rationale for participating in organized crime--and dialogue and songs in their own language, with the aid of supertitles.


Piecing together a bona fide musical theatre score that would support the show's beefed-up book was another huge hurdle. Some numbers, including the title tune, were kept from the original, and one song that made it to the stage even features lyrics Scanlan set to an Arthur Sullivan patter tune. The bulk of the new musical's score, though, was written by Jeanine Tesori (Caroline, or Change), with lyrics by Scanlan.


All those video replays and years of sweat certainly paid off: After an out-of-town run at the La Jolla Playhouse, Millie opened on Broadway in 2002 and swept that year's Tonys. It's still packing 'em in, and a London production opened last year amid much ballyhoo.


As Scanlan--who says he's next contemplating producing (but not writing) a play based on a biography of acting legend Eleanor Duse--reflects back on the journey that took him from a VCR to the Great White Way and beyond, he attributes the musical's success to its unique focus. "Millie is a character who typically would be the best friend in a story," says Scanlan. "Usually a character like Millie would be the sensible, wisecracking friend.


"And what's extraordinary about Millie is that she's smart, she's plucky. She's not talented, she's not beautiful, she's not sexy--or, if she is, her sexuality comes from how smart and gutsy she is. That, I hope, is what gives the show a very contemporary sensibility."


Or, at least, makes Millie the very model of a modern major musical.


ROB KENDT writes about theatre for the Los Angeles Times, the Downtown News, and American Theatre, among others.