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In the late ’90s, Dick Scanlan’s boyfriend passed away, leaving him a summer home in the South Hamptons. The house had lousy television reception but, notes Scanlan, “it had a VCR and we had two movies on hand: Caligula and Thoroughly Modern Millie.” After months of endless viewings of the latter, an idea struck Scanlan — who had worked as an actor, a Broadway agent, and a theater journalist — why not turn Millie into a big, blazing Broadway musical?
“I became struck with the fact that inside this movie — which has not had a very good shelf life — lies the story of a young woman who is unhappy with the kind of the life she’s been born to lead, which is a provincial small town life. So she decides to chuck it all in order to move to New York and try and become the person that she feels she is.
“It’s a very big idea — it’s also a very American idea. And I thought how odd that inside this dismissed film is actually such a large idea. That just really intrigued me.”
A few years later in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie won a handful of Tonys, including Best Musical. It’s now in the middle of a national tour with a stop at the Kennedy Center.
Scanlan handled the book and lyrics, while Michael Mayer, a friend from his days as a youth in Bethesda, Md. days directed (“It was like working with my brother,” says Scanlan, “a brother you really get along with”). Jeanine Tesori composed the music.
“I was excited to work with a woman composer,” says Scanlan, “because Millie really is a woman’s show. The protagonist is a woman, the antagonist is a woman, the people that make the decisions that move this sotry forward are all female.”
Scanlan is currently developing a new project, though he doubts it will resemble Millie. “When you have a success everybody brings to you very similar projects thinking that you did it once, you can do it again. But I never tend to write the same kind of thing twice. Once I’ve done something, I scratch that itch, and then I have the desire to do something else.”
Thoroughly Modern Millie runs through Dec. 26 at the KenCen Opera House. Call 202-467-4600.