Thoroughly Modern Millie
Based on the 1960s movie musical starring Julie Andrews and a very young Mary Tyler Moore, Thoroughly Modern Millie is a retro-musical in the vein of the classic Broadway musicals like Kiss Me Kate and The Pajama Game. Winner of the 2002 Tony for Best New musical, Millie aims to be nothing more than frothy fun in the vein of the Golden Age of Broadway...and pretty much succeeds at doing just that. So what does this has to do with Asian American theatre?
Plenty, as it turns out. A major subplot in the show, as in the movie, turns around the hoary old "white slavery" routine, where nubile, young females are kidnapped for a Fate Worse Than Death. As in the movie, there are two Chinese henchmen involved in these nefarious doings (played by Francis Jue and Ken Leung). Unlike the movie, however, this pair is more or less blackmailed into doing the bidding of the villainess, and they don't run around speaking bad broken English (that's left to the villainess...and it's perhaps a bit of slyness on the bit of the writers that no one in the show except the two Chinese guys ever picks up on how phony the accent is). The pair speak entirely in Cantonese, yet manage to get several scenes and musical numbers to themselves.
A few points:
- The pair are invariably described as being a politically correct portrayal. Hmm. The original depiction is most definitely stereotyped and offensive--yet any variation from it is considered poltically correct??? This shows how incredibly empty the term is, and how devalued it has become. When ANY attempt to change an admittedly stereotyped and racist portrayal is termed "politically correct", it's time to bury the term. Dammit, isn't the whole point of our current enlightened times is to avoid being stereotyped and racist when you don't have to be???
- The Chinese duo speak entirely in Cantonese (which is suitably translated through supertitles for the less unlightened of the audience)(which most definitely includes third and fourth generation Asian Americans). Yet this doesn't stop the two from participating in the song and dance hijinks, as their songs are sung in Cantonese, including a Cantonese version of that Al Jolson classic, Mammy.
- Some progressive critics may fret that these Chinese characters are clueless clowns, or as butt of jokes. This might be a concern...except that EVERY character in this show acts like clueless clowns. The Asian characters are treated no worse and no better than anyone else in the show, but are NOT gratuitously stereotyped on racial grounds--which has been the whole point of the Asian American theatre movement for the past four decades.
- Finally...and perhaps most satisfying...the Asian guy ends up getting the Girl. That ALONE earns the show beaucoup points in my book (and it gets a triple bonus for HOW it gets done, as it turns on its head previous approaches to Crushes-Held-by-Asian-Men-On-Pure-Virginal-White-Maidens).