Oh, my. What positive things can I say about the new musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie , the latest bummer to open on Broadway? If we judge shows by the highest standards-and those are the only standards you and I know-we’re stumped, we’re at a loss, we’re verklempt . We could say we enjoyed the shoes. But that’s a fat lot of good to anyone, except the cobbler. Still, the spiffy Jazz Age footwear on everyone and indeed the period wigs are strikingly swell. Which reminds me of the time I saw a Luis Buñuel film, but the translation wasn’t all it could have been. “Oh dear,” someone said to the famous foot fetishist. “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”
I feel the same way about Thoroughly Modern Millie . To say that 10 million smackaroos have been thrown away on a dressed-up version of summer stock would be harsh, but not too far off the mark. Look at its idea of humor. The unhinged plot involves two Chinese laundrymen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, who assist the evil Mrs. Meers, who’s pretending to be Chinese but is really a former actress running a white-slavery business. (Don’t ask.)
It’s not worth making a song and dance about, but this is the kind of provincial musical that finds the Chinese language-as in “No tickee, no shirtee”-inherently funny. Except here, our two comic laundrymen speak only Chinese. The use of supertitles for translation purposes is mildly amusing at first. This joke-the show’s only joke-reveals, at least, the far-off glimmer of an Idea. Yet beneath the hoary, cheesy surface, what’s wrong here is more interesting than the sum of its exhausting desperation.
I think I’ve seen the world’s first digitally animated musical on Broadway, and it doesn’t work. Thoroughly Modern Millie seems live, it seems real, and it could fool some of the people some of the time. But nothing’s there. It simulates a programmed high-spiritedness and wit and romance-everything a vintage 1920’s musical comedy can be-but nothing gets anywhere close to the real irresistible thing. Here comes the pretty ingénue from Kansas, arriving wide-eyed to conquer the big city named Cotton Candy, New York. Oops! She’s had her bag ripped off. But she’ll make it somehow. If she can make it here, she can make it anywhere. And here comes the dear old Chinese comedy turn, and here’s a jolly dance number that reminds us of another jolly dance number from another jolly show. Here’s the diva moment in the smoky-nightclub scene, and here’s a song that reminds us of another song in some other show. Long ago. Don’t you know. And so it goes, in virtual reality.
Where have we heard that song before? Well, in its forlorn attempts at musical pastiche, the new score quotes from Gilbert and Sullivan, Tch-aikovsky’s Nutcracker , European operetta, Al Jolson and, of all things, the cancan. It might not help the intended period flavor of the show-but hey, why not? The Chinese laundrymen, poor sods, have to sing Jolson’s “Mammy” in Chinese. Now had the entire clueless musical been performed in Chinese, they might have been on to something. It would have been new, at least to Broadway.
As it is, the only winning number wasn’t written by the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, and lyricist Dick Scanlan (who also wrote the book with Richard Morris). James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn’s bouncy, almost irritatingly infectious “Thoroughly Modern Millie” was, of course, the title song for the 1967 movie musical on which the show is based. But the creators of the Broadway version have taken the idea for their production from a movie that shouldn’t have been a musical in the first place. The original “madcap” film, starring Julie Andrews, was a pastiche of pastiche stage musicals, and it flopped. Who on earth would trouble to adapt a flop?
Let’s assume the director, Michael Mayer, and his creative team saw the possibilities . But Broadway musicals aren’t Mr. Mayer’s calling card. (His two previous cartoonish outings, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Triumph of Love , didn’t ignite.) The show marks Ms. Tesori’s Broadway debut, and judging from her lovely scores for Nicholas Hytner’s Twelfth Night and the Off Broadway Violet , her strength is in refined ensemble pieces rather than the razzmatazz of Thoroughly Modern Millie . Mr. Scanlan, the book and lyric writer, has never written a musical before. He’s a journalist-God love him-as well as a novelist, sometime lyricist and ex-actor who originated the role of Miss Great Plains in the musical Pageant . This also happens to be choreographer Rob Ashford’s Broadway debut.
Well, Broadway urgently needs fresh talent more than anything. But it needs the right vehicle, and it needs to know where it’s coming from and where it’s going. It’s why my heart lifted to see Sheryl Lee Ralph onstage again, even in the dubious role of the nightclub queen with a heart of gold. But, alas, the subdued Ms. Ralph wasn’t at her best, and she sure wasn’t helped by her big song-a faux Kander and Ebb tribute to New York that was meant, all too foolishly, to compete with the rousing anthem that everyone can sing in their sleep. Remember Ms. Ralph from happier days as a star of the now-fabled Dreamgirls -the last hurrah of that gypsy-genius of old Broadway, Michael Bennett. It was also the last time some of us could talk confidently in terms of musical greatness.
Nostalgia can sink you, if you’re not careful. But so can the present. I’m reluctant to single out Thoroughly Modern Millie ‘s leading lady, Sutton Foster, but I’m afraid she’s the symbol of the new digital age. Ms. Foster’s Millie might, at a pinch, be Mary Tyler Moore. Then again, she might be anyone. She does nothing wrong, exactly. Far from it-she’s perfect in everything she does. Perfect, gleaming smile; perfect delivery of big songs; perfect pratfall. But we cannot warm to her. We would like to be on her side, but she cannot touch us.
The authentic stamp of the vulnerable individual is absent. It’s the only thing, with God-given talent, that counts. It’s damning enough to conclude that the Botoxed production as a whole reveals no sense of its 20’s period, no feel for Broadway’s honorable past, no link to anything except the vague virtual reality of a slapdash pastiche and camp. In the past is the future, goes the worthy expression. Go back to break with all that is truly known. It’s the only way of being thoroughly modern.