You would never assume that a tap dancing musical comedy would be constantly embroiled in controversy but you would be surprised to find out that's just the case with the 2001 musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. A staple of community and educational theatre, lately the piece has become a centerpiece in the debate over the racist portrayal of its characters. So much so, that in the past couple of years, multiple high schools have announced they would cancel performances of the show.
So given the annual controversy this pieces seems to incite, is it time for the creative team to revisit the piece and rewrite it? I believe so.
In case you didn't know, the issue seems to surround the characters of Mrs. Meers and her Chinese henchmen, Bun Foo and Ching Ho. As the villain in the show, Mrs. Meers is an actress turned evil who now works for a white slavery ring in Hong Kong, kidnapping pretty unsuspecting orphan girls and shipping them to the Orient.
The problem is the way the characters are presented, the Chinese henchmen are written as Asian stereotypes that make Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi look more accurate and Mrs. Meers is presented as a white woman blatantly performing in "yellowface."
So why should Jeanine Tesori, Dick Scanlan and Richard Morris revisit this work and rewrite these characters? Because allowing your material to be used to mock a particular ethnicity is wrong. It was wrong in 1967 when the movie came out. It was wrong in 2001 when the musical came out. And it's wrong in 2015 where it's one of the most popular shows produced all over the country.
It's also a dark spot on Tesori's legacy of work. The subplot only serves as a direct contradiction to every Tesori musical where civil rights, being comfortable in your own skin and acceptance are central themes.
It also gives local theatres avenues for incredibly offensive portrayals of these characters due to lack of Asians auditioning for the show. Take for instance, the Actors Singers of Nahua, NH production(Right), which triggered an immediate "WTF!!" upon seeing this picture.
Again, allowing your work to be easily and frequently sullied by design like this, you would think Tesori and company would rush to change it. I don't think it's being overly sensitive or "PC Police" to want these characters to be given a second look by their creators.
There is plenty to like about Thoroughly Modern Millie, so why let this nonsensical subplot invite annual controversy? I hope the creative team rework this material so that high schools can perform this show for dozens of reasons instead of the one that causes it to be cancelled year after year.