Thoroughly Modern Millie has always been a musical about the wide-eyed ingenue taking on the big city and coming out on top—and we don’t just mean the book of the 2002 Tony-winning Best Musical. The story of the production itself (and its star) is now the stuff of show biz legend. When you read articles about the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of the film starring Julie Andrews the waters were rocky. Stars were lost, an ensemble member was promoted to leading lady, early out-of-town previews were canceled, it was the director and librettist's first musical, and the choreographer had been an associate choreographer up until that point.
But on Broadway, the tides turned and Millie charmed audiences and launched the careers of its creative team—including director Michael Mayer, book writer Dick Scanlan, and composer Jeanine Tesori—leading players Sutton Foster and Gavin Creel, and an ensemble that included future breakouts Kate Baldwin, Casey Nicholaw, JoAnn M. Hunter, Noah Racey, and more. The production earned 11 Tony nominations and won six, including Best Actress for Foster, Best Featured Actress for Harriet Harris, Best Costume Design for Martin Pakledinaz, Best Choreography for Rob Ashford, and Best Orchestrations for Doug Besterman and Ralph Burns. On February 12, the original cast of Thoroughly Modern Millie gathered for a one-night-only reunion concert to benefit the Actors Fund.
The team reunited the original cast and added a new dance ensemble for numbers like the iconic opener and “The Speed Test.” “We wanted to get dancers who’d all done Millie somewhere at sometime,” Ashford told Playbill at the after party. “We thought that would be really fun to pass down the show, to show how the show has lived on these 15 years.” Directed by Mayer, Scanlan, and Ashford (“We would tag-team these rehearsals. We had mapped out what we were doing so we were all teaching the same show,” said Scanlan), the concert—which may as well be categorized as a full production sans sets and costumes—was the product of a single week of rehearsals.
Putting together such a polished product has to do with the fact that these performers never fully forgot their material. “It was weird—because I did the role for two years but when I finished the show I sort of packed it up,” said Foster. “The only song I sing is ‘Gimme,’ I’ll sing it for concerts and stuff. It was weird revisiting those scenes and the next thing you know I’m like, ‘I said it like that. OK.‘ She’s just in there like some file in my head.”
Still, some performers were able to bring their performances to a new level. Gavin Creel’s solo “What Do I Need With Love?” shook the rafters in a rendition no one had heard him do—not even Creel: “I had no idea! I literally didn’t! I was like, I’ve never done the song like that ever. I was like ‘This is never gonna happen again. This is an unbelievable group of people who are so excited to be here. I’m so excited to be here. I was like ‘Let’s do this!’”
For Millie fans, the concert felt like stepping inside the cast album—the vocals and tapping as fresh as ever.
“It’s a timeless story,” Foster said. “What I love about it is it’s just fun but has that gooey, sincere little heart. I was proud we were able to hold onto that and really send it up with integrity and sincerity, to really honor what it is and what it was and what so many people remembered about it and loved about it.”
Below, Playbill asked Foster, Creel, Harris, Ashford, Scanlan, and more original Millie-ans: What was your favorite Millie moment that you got to relive tonight?
Look Back at Thoroughly Modern Millie on Its 15th Anniversary
Rob Ashford, Choreographer
“I have to say—of course the whole thing and seeing them all together—but I have to say ‘Forget About the Boy’ with those original gals. It’s such a great song and such a great number and it’s so well acted and danced and all the elements of it, it has the perfect build. It should be classroom for someone who says, ‘I want to create or write a great musical theatre song. I would say study that because it’s in there.‘ That was thrilling. All week long has been very emotional and very exciting. It was a gift from Actors Fund to do.”
Dick Scanlan, co-book writer and lyricist
“One thing that sort of really knocked me out tonight—because I hadn’t seen it in rehearsal—‘What Do I Need With Love?’ for this reading. I couldn’t believe how thrilling his version of it was. I was also very proud of the song, because I don’t sit around listening to the song. I was like, ‘Wow that song is good and his version of it just…whaaaaa? The song ‘I Turned the Corner,‘ which he sings to Sutton, I wrote for my partner who was with me tonight so it was very sweet to be sitting next to him yet again and to still be together and more in love than ever.”
JoAnn M Hunter, Original Gloria
“I don’t know if it was a moment in the show as it was more the relationships, especially the ladies. Certain things we would remember during the course of the show because there were things that will never happen again. This was not just sentimental. It was guttural. Before we started ‘Forget About the Boy’ I turned to Joyce and said, ‘I think I’m going to cry.’ You forget that you’ve been given the chance to do something that you love and to do this again you think, ‘Oh that’s right, this is something I love to do and I did it again and I did it with great people.’”
Joyce Chittick, Original Ethel Pease
”The end of ‘Forget About the Boy.’ We used to do this every night and before the curtain would go up we would be backstage goofing around. And I was remembering that. To do that number again, it’s so iconic now and we didn’t know that at the time. To be together again and to get a standing ovation! And at the beginning of show listening to the lyrics of “I studied all the pictures in magazines and books / I memorized the subway map too,” thinking about when I was a little girl growing up in Maine and watching the Tony Awards when I was eight years old and I didn’t even know what Broadway was and I was like, ‘I wanna do that.’ And I’ve done that and I’ve done it in spades. I got choked up.”
Kate Baldwin, Original Lucille and Daphne
“How can you compare with ‘Forget About the Boy’? First of all the song is terrific, it was the song we did on the Tony Awards. I remember that really special night when we won for Best Musical, which was thrilling. Tonight it stopped the show. We knew that people go nuts for it, but the minute she slammed the phone and sang ‘No canary in a cage‘ and the whole place went nuts I thought, ‘Uh oh, we are in for it now.’”
Francis Jue, Original Bun Foo
“I wasn’t even onstage but there was a moment tonight where Millie asks Trevor Graydon about Rudolph Valentino taking a woman by brute force and he says ‘That’s not what I think a modern woman wants at all,’ and the audience erupted and I think, at least from my perspective, that’s what this show always was. But more so now. I think the show has something to say, as fun and light as it is, the show actually has something to say about this #MeToo TimesUp moment, where women need to be heard and women need to be acknowledged and women’s power over their own lives—we need to get out of the way and listen to women. That was a beautiful moment for me.”
Darren Lee, original ensemblist and understudy for Ching Ho
“I remember having a lot of love for the show but it was just seeing all the people and we just fell into the same rhythms at times. It was just extraordinary. Also when you’re in the show and you’re doing the show, you don’t always make it a point to watch everyone else’s performances, but instead of being in our dressing rooms or changing costumes like we usually would’ve done, we were all gathered in the wings watching this really special night happen.”
Harriet Harris, Original Mrs. Meers
I think really watching people do things. There are things I watched every night when we did the show. I almost always watched Sutton do ‘Gimme Gimme.‘ I loved watching Gavin and Sutton dance on that ledge. There were things like that that it was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s right.‘ There’s just a certain kind of innocence that the show evokes and the kind of thing you want more and more of. The size of the house and the people’s response that was unanticipated. You hope people will be so excited and it’s gonna be such a party and everybody’s gonna love it, but it’s that sound of an audience deciding this is exactly what we wanted right now and then sometimes when something’s gone particularly well, it’s like, ‘This is exactly what we wanted right now and we’re going to remember this for a long time.‘
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Original Muzzy Van Hossmere
“I think it was entering the stage. You always hope you’ll be welcomed to the stage, but I was completely overwhelmed by what happened when I entered that stage. And then when I finished the song, I was like ‘Oh my God’ and then when I got out there for Café Society, I was like ‘Am I getting more?’ It just kept getting larger and larger.”
Marc Kudisch, Original Trevor Graydon
“Truthfully, the entrance. Obviously, ‘The Speed Test,’ but I’m not gonna lie, Michael Rafter—who I adore—our music director... the tempo was really fast tonight. Even I was like, ‘Whoa Whoa.’ I don’t know that we’ve ever gone this fast before. [But going back to the show in general] It’s like lightning in a bottle twice? Can you capture that?
Megan McGinnis, Replacement for Miss Dorothy Brown
“I don’t think there was one favorite. Being back with this group of people. Watching ‘Gimme‘ from the wings of course was so beautiful. Watching ‘Forget About the Boy,’ burst into tears. Getting to do the pas de deux again was so fun—and terrifying. It does feel like an old dress actually. There are things that I remember that I thought had totally left my brain. You start saying those lines again and the intonations come back. Your memories of what would happen backstage during those lines and that bar of music. Really cool to relive it.”
Sutton Foster, Original Millie Dilmount
“It was incredible to be on the stage. But honestly, Gavin and I, we had such a really strong bond in the original company and we haven’t worked together since. To be able to share the stage again with him and look in his eyes and just remember all the good and all the bad and all the ups and downs, that was probably my favorite part.”
Gavin Creel, Original Jimmy Smith
“Honestly, the scene on the ledge. To be able to dance the scene on the ledge with her and to get to sing ‘I Turned the Corner’ with her. I literally fell in love with that girl in a way that took my little gay self by surprise. It did! I really, I fell in love with her. And when I left the show it was kind of like a heartbreak. We’ve gone our separate ways and I’ve watched her star rise and I’m so honored to have known her and worked with her. To get to do it one more time, it’s something very special with her.