War and feminism intersect in the The Hello Girls, a new musical that tells a little-known story of World War One. In Prospect Theater Company‘s striking production at 59e59 Theaters it proves one of the best new musicals I’ve seen Off-Broadway.
A smart, crisply written book by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel links a sequence of superb musical numbers by Mills, recounting in the best musical-theater tradition the little-known story of the U.S. Army’s female telephone switchboard operators who worked under fire in World War I.
In 1918 the army recruited a corps of operators from around the U.S. to run communications at headquarters in France. At first the “Hello Girls” worked at some distance from the front, but when the war was drawing to its dramatic close, they were the only operators skilled and professional enough to do the job at the front. They conveyed essential orders and reports, translated between English and French, and earned the respect of the men who had recruited them, including General John J. Pershing.
Many of the cast members play instruments as well as – indeed, while – singing, acting, and making their movement teachers proud. Ellie Fishman centers an enormously talented ensemble as chief operator Grace Banker, giving Grace, who was a real-life switchboard operator from Bell Telephone in New York, a humble sort of charisma. Professionally stymied because she’s a woman, she’s convinced by her brasher friend Suzanne (a sturdy-voiced, guitar-playing Skyler Volpe) to apply for the new women’s corps.
In “Connected” (the show’s “I Want” song) Grace sings: “What’s with the butterflies?/Haven’t you wanted this?…Haven’t you felt like you haven’t been doing enough?…Follow a path that’s unexpected/And you might wind up connected to it all!” Connection becomes Grace’s theme, the concept recurring as the action heightens and her character develops.
After a grueling tryout and much humiliating poking and prodding (“We Aren’t in the Army”), Grace and Suzanne beat out a flood of applicants and sign up. Much to her surprise and despite her rusty French, Grace is assigned to command the unit.
As she connects with her leadership potential and whips the corps into shape, Grace realizes that command entails a degree of disconnection from the regular troops. The show is ever conscious of such psychological subtleties. All the characters are drawn with depth and complexity.
Besides brave Suzanne, we get to know a few more of Grace’s skilled charges.
Bertha Hunt (Lili Thomas, a powerful-voiced singer who also plays piano, trumpet, and baritone horn) is a 33-year-old whose husband is fighting overseas too. Teenage Louise LeBreton (clarinetist Cathryn Wake), another real-life operator, is an immigrant valued as a native French speaker – but in danger of getting the boot because she has lied about her age. Hopelessly charming farm girl Helen Hill (cellist Chanel Karimkhani) develops from a frightened innocent to a war-tempered professional.
One who believes himself an ultimate professional is Lt. Riser (the excellent Arlo Hill, a skilled drummer and percussionist). Riser hates his assignment. Recruiting women cuts him two ways. It threatens his sense of manhood. It also affronts his conviction that women should be a) protected and worshipped, and b) kept in their place – certainly not put in harm’s way or given undue responsibility. His clash with Grace persists through the story even as both prove their wartime mettle in their own ways.
It’s also a conflict that rings through the intervening century to the present day, when despite feminism’s huge strides a #MeToo movement is still needed, and an unapologetic misogynist can be elected President with the support of millions – of women. The show draws an explicit modern-day parallel at the top, but thereafter lets the story speak for itself.
It speaks in the time-honored language of the Broadway musical, with smartly-crafted songs and crisp and inventive numbers. The clever lyrics are loaded with tight phrasing and sparkling rhymes (Swiss cheese/this please, conundrum/one drum). The music revels in rolling melodies, sweet harmonies (“So Good So Far” is a gem), and the occasional unexpected dissonance. “Je M’en Fiche” is a carefree joy. Following the brilliant “Cryptic Triptych,” Grace’s muscular “Twenty” echoes an incident from Cyrano: She lets all her resentment fly as she enumerates for Riser all the reasons her corps should go to the front.
Reichel’s creatively economical direction complemented by Christine O’Grady’s lively choreography makes the most of the small set. Steps and platforms are all that’s needed for multiple locales. Two upright pianos double as scenic design – indeed the back of a piano becomes a switchboard. Andrew Mayer, who plays several roles – his German POW is especially good – wields his violin quite convincingly as a rifle. Bassist Scott Wakefield emerges from the shadows to play General Pershing as a stolid and strong-voiced baritone.
The production is a consummate ensemble piece. The action glides from number to number, all the creative and technical elements working smoothly in concert – the subtly informative projections, the straightforward period costumes, the effectively unobtrusive lighting. The trick of actors doubling as onstage orchestra isn’t new, but it’s honed to perfection here. The Hello Girls is a winner on all fronts. It runs until 22 December. For tickets visit the 59e59 website or call the box office at 646-892-7999.