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'Thoroughly Modern Millie' not modern enough

The musical loses its subtle meaning in Levittown.

Photo Credit: ISTOCK/iStock

The superintendent of Levittown schools, Tonie McDonald, has decided to ban any future staging of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” saying the “students’ performance was never intended to offend any individual or group of people and apologizes if it did.”

I don’t believe that banning the musical is the right move, and I also take issue with McDonald’s qualifier “if.” An inability to explain the musical and why Asian-Americans on Long Island were outraged is fundamentally wrong.

The musical is a satirical rewrite of a 1967 film starring Julie Andrews. Millie is a whimsical flapper looking to marry rich during the Roaring ’20s. She checks into the Priscilla Hotel, where the house mother, Mrs. Meers, attempts to kidnap and sell her into “white slavery” in Hong Kong with her henchmen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo. With Mrs. Meers wearing a qipao, a dress with distinctive Chinese features, and with chopsticks in her hair, “Thoroughly Modern Millie” is one of those movies that makes you think racism could be harmless, even boring.

When Dick Scanlan adapted the movie into a stage production — he wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book — he had to figure out how to subvert this undisguised racism. He made Mrs. Meers a reflection of America’s lazy stereotyping of Chinese people. Scanlan wanted to lightheartedly indict the audience and challenge its judgments of how Chinese are portrayed. It was a harmless, even noble, act in 2002, when the total incidents of right-wing domestic terrorism numbered zero, according to the Global Terrorism Database.

In a recorded panel discussion with Jack Tchen in 2016, a New York University historian and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America, Scanlan explained that Harriet Harris, who played Mrs. Meers in the 2002 Broadway production, articulated her character by going for the most extreme and offensive version of this stereotype. It would be yellowface on speed. The performance won her a Tony Award that year.

When the show finished its Broadway run, Scanlan licensed the musical, intending for students to push their understanding of people by inhabiting the characters. Students would play Mrs. Meers as an exploitative predator while lionizing Ching Ho and Bun Foo.

Since then, there have been more than 50 domestic right-wing attacks. In 2017 alone, there were 36. We’ll remember the last few years for the Charleston church shooting, the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

In 2002, Mrs. Meers was supposed to expose the racism of some white Americans. It should be a timeless story because as new generations lose their immigrant heritage, they identify more with the predominant culture. Staging this musical should be a revolving reminder.

The performance of this musical in Levittown, parts of which I viewed through clips, should have been a comedic reckoning, a gentle reminder. Instead, the failure to perform the core of the musical’s precise satire reflected on the society where it was staged. If it came off as insensitive, it probably was. I imagine there was a serious lack of understanding of our painful history as Chinese in America. This includes containment in ghettos (Chinatowns) and our portrayal as bumbling, unintelligent and inarticulate — to name two aspects. When “Thoroughly Modern Millie” failed to subvert its racist origins, it perpetuated the very racism it purported to lampoon.

Perhaps Scanlan’s sensitive musical has no place in this age of bias and violence, since it counts on community and compassion. Perhaps the musical’s subversion must match the brutality and cruelty of our times.

 Jasper K. Lo, who served four years in the U.S. Army, went to high school at Great Neck South. He is a Columbia University Class of 2019 dual graduate-degree candidate in international relations and journalism.

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