Songwriter Peter Mills—who provides the score for The Hello Girls, just opening with great flair at 59E59 Theatres—has been working quietly for a couple decades now. Considering his enormous talent, he’s been working much more quietly than he deserves.
The Hello Girls isn’t quiet, by any means. It’s a rousing and canny entry at the end of 2018, the #Metoo year. Set in 1918, it’s very much about the Great War, which ended just a few days over a century back. So with a focus on the terrifying war and the active societal equalizing of women, it’s a clever amalgam of something historically pertinent and something contemporarily pertinent.
Grace Banker (Ellie Fishman) is a Bell Telephone operator who responds to a call for operators to take over switchboards behind the lines in the French fighting fields—and then very much on the line. She does so with friend Suzanne Prevot (Skyler Volpe) and new associates Helen Hill (Chanel Karimkhani), Bertha Hunt (Lili Thomas), and Louise LeBreton (Cathryn Wake).
Putting aside the clang and clash of WWI, the women’s aspiring-to-soldier-status progress is no French countryside picnic. Immediately, they’re belittled by officers and enlisted men in the persons of skeptical Lt. Joseph W. Riser (Arlo Hill), sneaky Pvt. Matterson (Matthew McGloin), and forthright Gen. John J. Pershing (Scott Wakefield), who are initially convinced that even savants of the switchboard have no place in war.
They’re fighting their own battle within the larger battle—and occasionally with humor. (There’s a sly little joke about the German Fokker monoplanes often flying overhead.) As they’re forced to become proactive in getting where they believe they should be—considered as soldiers on a par with their male counterparts—Grace and the others talk (Cara Reichel and Mills co-authored the book) and sing their way (this is a musical!) to the front.
And to fame, as The Hello Girls existed and were eventually famous. (A program note mentions Elizabeth Cobbs’ The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldier as bring cribbed from.) And now they’ve been outfitted with a Mills score heavy on the insistent, not to say rah-rah, side. Since Mills writes strong, fluid melodies—which used to be required for musicals and still should be—and those keenly crafted lyrics, the anthems and others are consistently tonic (no pun intended).
One noticeable thing about Mills’ 19 ear teasers is that there isn’t a ballad among them, not even at a few moments when he might have unfurled one. As Grace Banker and Lt. Riser repeatedly wrangle, they send off sparks, but Mills and Reichel—who also directs with spirit—keep them from impressing as the romantic kind. Presumably, the creators are being scrupulous about staying away from the love-song-show, and they’re to be admired for that. Or are they? The closest they come to a reverie is the ruminative second-act “So Good So Far,” which has its own kind of beauty.
The songs come with tidy Mills-Ben Moss arrangements (Moss also plays wily Lt. Wesson) and several other pluses. All performers but Fishman play instruments and play them exceptionally well while skedaddling all over Lianne Arnold multi-level set and under Isabella Byrd’s intricate lighting design and often to Christine O’Grady’s choreography. They’re not so-so instrumentalists, either. In particular, Wake on her clarinet is a jazz hotshot.
Mills first caught my ear when some years back I heard “Way Ahead of My Time,” also known as “The Caveman Song.” The tale of a gay caveman trying to come out to his father includes the triple rhyme “Pleistocene/iced a scene/nice to see n(ew clothes).” Impressive, no? When was the last time “Pleistocene” was rhymed once, let alone twice?
A 1995 Princeton graduate, who was, of course, a Triangle Club member, Mills co-founded the Prospect Theater Company with Reichel and in the intervening years has written the songs (and often written or co-written the book) for several other highly appealing musicals. These include The Flood, which concerns the 1927 Mississippi River disaster and boasts “It’s Amazing the Things That Float,” arguably the most brilliant song composed for a show anytime recently.
Had Mills been dreaming up songs in the mid-20th century, he would likely have been a celebrated Broadway tunesmith, but the closest he’s come to the main Stem so far is The Honeymooners, a musical adaptation of the classic Jackie Gleason sitcom, for which he wrote only the lyrics (Stephen Weiner, the composer). It opened a year ago at the Paper Mill Playhouse and, for reasons only slightly involving Mills, was sufficiently below par not to warrant much more discussion.
So here’s a golden opportunity to get up to speed on Peter Mills. I’d say it’s all but imperative.
The Hello Girls opened December 2, 2018, at 59E59 Theaters and runs to December 22. Tickets and information: 59e59.org