- Green Glass and Emeralds:Citation, Performance, and the Dynamics of Ethnic Parody in Thoroughly Modern Millie
If I were to make a list of the areas in which America excels, from the sublime to the ridiculous—political freedom to fast food—musical theatre would top the sublime column. Not only did we invent musicals, we have re-framed and re-created them to suit the needs of the times in which they are being presented, from Oklahoma! to A Chorus Line, Show Boat to Rent.—Dick Scanlan, "Thoroughly Modern Millie: Red, White and Blues" (22)
"While I truly do prefer emeralds, we could have made it on green glass."—Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967)
From the time of its emergence as a distinct theatrical genre in the early twentieth century, the American book musical has played a significant role in the formation of a national persona inflected by the particularities of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.1 Widely considered by US cultural historians to be one of three uniquely American art forms, along with jazz and the Hollywood film, American musicals, like all dominant forms of popular culture, have effectively expressed contemporary values and concerns while at the same time participating in the more enduring project of articulating and shaping a collective identity. As a form of total theater defined by its integration of spoken dialogue, song, and dance to develop a sustained dramatic plot, the American or Broadway musical has the capacity to be a particularly persuasive medium, producing its effects through mutually reinforcing intellectual, psychological, and affective channels of communication.
With their award-winning 2000 stage adaptation of the 1967 film musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie, Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan continued a long tradition of conjoining musical theater form and ethnically marked embodiment to rescript conceptions of a national identity. [End Page 35] Whereas the original screen version was intended as a spoof of the manners, fashions, and values of the Roaring Twenties as they were depicted in popular cultural forms of the era, the new turn-of-the-century stage adaptation had the more ambitious goal of replaying and updating one of the dominant narratives of American identity. Dick Scanlan, the motivating force behind the radically reconceptualized adaptation, describes his vision of the show in an essay titled "Thoroughly Modern Millie: Red, White, and Blues":
The same drive to find a better life is at the core of what the settlers were doing when they landed at Plymouth Rock. Millie's clothes may be more fabulous than the Puritan look, but her desires are the desires on which this country was founded, and on which it still thrives. To explore those desires in a musical comedy is the perfect fusion of form and theme: 100% American.(22)
In Scanlan's version, white Midwesterners, Asian immigrants, and African Americans form a common community of migrants who have relocated in search of a better life. In the new stage musical's popular theatrical redefinition of what it means to be American in the twenty-first century, the original narratives of nation-building, which were always implicitly and more often than not explicitly exclusive, are rewritten in the form of individual life sketches that overturn the notion of a collective identity dependent on racial and gender hierarchies and cultural homogeneity.
Scanlan's goal was to embody the spirit of the present multiracial and multicultural era of American society and American theater. Rather than relying on straightforward representations or declarative statements to accomplish this task, however, Thoroughly Modern Millie operates in the mode of second-order parody, using over-emphatic citations and performances within performances to deconstruct stereotypes and reformulate social relations. The racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes that the stage musical's celluloid predecessor parodied on screen are undermined by means of intertextual humor that invites spectatorial complicity. This approach endows an ostensibly light musical with cultural force; it also makes it subject to controversy that testifies to the engagement of Broadway musicals with the vital questions of their time.
Motivated by the pursuit of both artistic recognition and commercial success, the creators and producers of American musicals have always been highly attuned to the climate...