Lively with over-the-top silliness, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a rollicking good time, provided the production has a first rate actress in the title role.
The Movie vs. the Broadway Show:
Before it became a Tony Award winning Broadway show, Thoroughly Modern Millie was a popular 1967 film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. This Hollywood musical featured jingles from the early 20th century as well as original songs written by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen (both famous for writing Frank Sinatra standards).
Although the musical follows the basic story line of the film, the Broadway version contains only one Van Heusen tune (the title song). There are a few older songs (such as "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life" from Naughty Marietta), but most of the showtunes were created by Jeanine Tesori (music) and Dick Scanlan (lyrics).
The crowd-pleasing hits by Tesori/Scanlan include:
- "What Do I Need with Love?"
- "Forget About the Boy"
- "Gimmee Gimmee"
The Basic Plot:
Set in the early 1920s, during the days of flappers, speak-easy joints, and prohibition, Thoroughly Modern Millie is the comedic tale of a young woman who moves from a small country town to New York City. Believing herself to be "thoroughly modern," she decides that instead of marrying for love she is going to marry for money. Her plan starts off well enough; she is hired by an attractive albeit egotistical employer -- her first marriage prospect. However, romance and thrills come into her life when she meets a devil-may-care playboy named Jimmy.
I've always found the sub-plot of the musical (both in the movie and on stage) a bit odd. Millie and her new-found friend Dorothy stay at a cheap hotel run by a woman named Mrs. Meers. On the surface she appears to be an insultingly stereotypical portrayal of an Asian woman. Yet underneath her oriental costume lurks a jilted New York actress who has turned to a life of crime. She and her henchmen have been kidnapping young women who arrive at the hotel and are "all alone in this world." What happens to them? They are shipped to Hong Kong and sold as unwilling prostitutes. The theme of "White Slavery" is an unsavory topic for such a light-hearted comedy, but the subject is never treated seriously and is not meant to disturb the audience. (And yet, I remember being deeply troubled during my childhood years when I watched the Julie Andrews movie.)
Sutton Foster as "Millie"
One of the reasons for the success of the Broadway show was the leading actress, Sutton Foster. While the show was in development, Kristin Chenoweth (AKA Glinda from Wicked) was originally cast to play the title role. However, she received an offer to develop a television show, so she left to pursue her Hollywood goals. The lead was then offered to Erin Dilly (who would go on to star in Broadway's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ) but for reasons not divulged in this interesting Playbill article about the show's original run at he La Jolla Playhouse, Dilly left the project. Finally, Sutton Foster, a member of the ensemble, moved up the ranks to claim the role of Millie.
Upon the show's New York premiere, Foster became a Broadway darling. Sure, she had been in professional shows before including Les Miserables (as Eponine) and Annie (as the Star-to-Be), but originating the role of Thoroughly Modern Millie led to her first Tony Award, followed by a string of incredible shows, including The Drowsy Chaperone, Little Women, and the recent revival of Anything Goes.
Of course, you don't need to see Ms. Foster to enjoy Millie. As long as the title character is played by a triple-threat actress who can sing, dance, and act her heart out, audiences are in for a fantastic time.