A Tale of Two Thoroughly Modern Women
Separated by the Allegheny River and nearly a century, two “thoroughly modern” women stepped onto separate stages and spent the next couple hours entertaining packed houses of appreciative fans in Pittsburgh Tuesday night.
At Heinz Field on the North Shore, Taylor Swift’s thousands of disciples hung on the flapper-esque pop siren’s every word as she defended her “Reputation” album.
At the same time at the Benedum Center in the Cultural District downtown, the much lesser known but no less earnest flapper-wannabe Millie Dillmount sought to build her reputation as a “modern” in 1923 New York City, belting out girl-power anthems in the opening night performance of the Pittsburgh CLO’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
The juxtaposition of the two similarly themed productions a mile apart on the same night is too good to leave unnoted. Both featured gorgeous women on a “modern” mission sporting high hemlines and singing about aspirations and love gone wrong.
I didn’t take my 12-year-old daughter to either production, although I suppose I would have taken her to one or the other if she had expressed interest. She never mentioned wanting to see Swift but instead underwent her first-concert rite of passage a month ago with Panic! At the Disco at PPG Paints Arena — definitely more her style. As for the musical, I am sad to say she has eschewed the genre, influenced by her anti-musical father. Glad I took her to a few good ones before she turned on me. (“No one bursts into song spontaneously!” they whine. Hello? Have we met?)
It got me wondering, though, who is the better role model for today’s girls, Taylor or Millie?
Professing to be a self-important “modern,” the star of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (played impeccably by Laurie Veldheer) arrives starry-eyed in the Big Apple fresh off the bus from Kansas and promptly bobs her hair, raises her hemline … and gets mugged. She ends up in a boarding house for young women, where she is nearly tossed out for not paying her rent before her dictation and shorthand skills land her a stenographer position for the handsome, also self-important, yet old-fashioned Trevor Graydon. She immediately starts calling him her fiance because her very “modern” (circa 1920s) goal is to marry her boss and thereby gain entry to the upper class and all the finer things it offers. Her efforts to snare Graydon fail, however; it so happens he values her for her stenog skills not her feminine wiles.
She ends up falling instead for a penniless fly-by-night player who nonetheless is fun to be with and even takes her to a soiree at the world-famous songstress Muzzy Van Hossmere’s penthouse, attended by all the movers and shakers of the day — Dorothy Parker and the like. He claims to be one of van Hossmere’s servants, although it is evident he is a favorite. Millie decides she doesn’t want to be a poor man’s wife, so she runs out on Jimmy, but he wins her back. With the help of Muzzy (played by Leslie Uggams), Millie decides love is more important than money. Jimmy then reveals he is Muzzy’s stepson and heir to a fortune. In the end, Millie’s “modern” mission was successful in spite of itself.
Not knowing how my daughter would have reacted and unwilling to speculate, I can tell you that, while it was an enjoyable production, the musical left me feeling more confused and annoyed than empowered. The side plot involving over-the-top Chinese stereotypes and white slavery also was more than slightly disturbing.
If I had crossed the river to see Taylor Swift instead, I am going to go out on a limb and say I would have felt inspired and energized. Sure, everyone loves to hate Taylor. She’s not perfect. Who is? But she keeps on keeping on — and she keeps encouraging her young fans. She’s talented, clever and tenacious. I think our girls could do much worse than “thoroughly modern” Taylor for a role model.
Life editor Betsy Bethel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.