When it comes to theatre, it seems that to a degree, we- like the industry of movies- is running a little bit dry. We're seeing more and more revivals and adaptations. Who knows why? Maybe the world is a dumpster fire and we want to be reminded of a simpler time. Just a few days ago I argued for a revival of Evita to remind us all to stay vigilant. Until the director says why, it's hard to tell what's in (usually) his mind.
Though we run into a problem when we're dealing with something from the past, and bringing it to the modern day. And that's that the past was pretty much the wild west, you could do or say whatever you wanted. Minorities, what? No slur is off limits, women are property, black people are hardly people, and honest and fair representations for other classes? Unheard of. And if you bring that forward without taking a long, hard look at what you're actually bringing forward, you're going to have some problems.
Sure, some people will love it. But there are people like those on this blog (and you can read dramaturg in residence Rebecca's piece on Carousel as an example) who will always be there to cock their head and say "What? That's... not okay."
So how do you balance that? How do you take the characters and story that people love and rewrite them for a new generation and make everyone happy? Well, this is what I call The Thoroughly Modern Millie principle, because it's been fifteen years since the show opened on Broadway and yet it's aged beautifully and fixed much of the racism and the casual sexism of the original movie. Even though it was 2004 and they probably could have kept many aspects, they decided to cut everything that didn't work and keep everything that did, bringing us a fun, family friendly (if you haven't driven down the road with your mom, windows down, belting Gimmie, Gimmie, I highly suggest it) adaption that feels true to the original but fair to the modern day.
They kept the motive of white slavery but instead of just making them racist caricatures, they made the main villain in brown face (which is also portrayed as not okay) and made her actual Asian underlings well developed characters with real motivations that were based on their family, they replaced the most cringeworthy line in the original ("Oh, no. I don't want to be your equal anymore. I want to be a woman. A dandy little bundle for a fellow to cuddle.") with a sweet line with an idea that threads through much of the show ("I don't care, I found myself a green glass love."), and possibly most importantly, replaced Baby Face with The Speed Test. (I'm sorry, Mom, I know you read these and I know you love Baby Face but The Speed Test is a real banger. I read this paragraph to Chet, and he agrees.)
And what was the cost? People say we can't change the classics, people will be up in arms, but what price did Michael Mayer pay for his honest and fair representation?! Well, the production won multiple Tony and Drama Desk awards, including best musical at both, and ran for over 900 performances on Broadway. Not too heavy of a price to pay, I would say.
Thoroughly Modern Millie proves that it can be done, and it can be done correctly. If the songs are beautiful but there are aspects of the book that make people's skin crawl, there are ways to fix it, and if you can find the perfect balance, then there's not much of a penalty. Those who criticize it will ultimately be doomed to oblivion, your piece will be a success, and done by high school productions for years to come.
(Photo credit, Joan Marcus.)