Prospect Theater Company has a long history of producing new works—how does this new production of The Hello Girls fit into your overall commitment to new works development?
Prospect is celebrating its 20th year of operations, and since 2005 we have been exclusively focused on developing and producing new musicals. The Hello Girls
is in many ways a return to our roots. It’s been entirely generated within the company over the past year, through an intensive workshop process leading to a premiere as part of our current residency at 59E59 Theaters. Fellow founding Prospect artist Peter Mills and I received an NEA commission to create the piece in 2017; this is the 12th show we’ve developed and produced through Prospect. While the network of artists Prospect serves has expanded far beyond its founding members’ work—recent productions have been by Kerrigan and Lowdermilk, Milburn & Vigoda, Carner & Gregor, Ryan Scott Oliver and others—we are excited to be focusing on a founder-driven project in our anniversary year.
How did the idea of The Hello Girls first come to you, and what kind of developmental work have you done to prepare for this world premiere?
In 2014, I saw a documentary called Unsung Heroes which was a history of women in various branches of the military. The “Hello Girls”—the first women who served in the US Army, during World War 1, who were bilingual telephone operators serving on the front lines with the Signal Corps—were included. The story immediately caught my attention, and I filed it away as a possible future idea. After we received our NEA commissioning grant in June 2017, we spent about six months on research and outlining, and really started getting material heard out loud in early 2018. We had monthly salons throughout the Spring, trying out songs from the first act. In June we did a reading of Act I here in NYC, in July we were hosted by Broadway au Carré in Paris to do a concert of the first Act with bilingual actors, and in August we were hosted upstate by the Goodwill Theatre for a residency to focus on Act 2, and to explore the actor-musician aspects of the show. We began rehearsals for our premiere on October 15. It’s been an intensive year of focused work!
What about the show are you most excited to share with audiences?
The story of these groundbreaking women is truly incredible, and almost no one has heard it. I can’t wait to share this history! Our show focuses mostly on the period in 1918 when the “Hello Girls” were recruited and sent overseas. In particular, our show follows a group of five women who were sent to serve on the front line. The strength of character and friendships of this group of women at the center of our show is powerful to watch—not to mention fun! The coda of their story is that after they returned to the US, the women who served learned they were not considered veterans by the Army, but rather civilian contractors, and therefore were not eligible for veterans benefits. The women fought for 60 years to achieve recognition of their veterans status, which they finally received in 1977. Sharing their story is a reminder of the perseverance required in the struggle for equality.
What do you hope is next for the show, and how can NAMT members who are interested in its future development get involved now?
After our Off-Broadway run in NYC (through Dec. 22) we hope The Hello Girls will continue its journey into the world! It’s an empowering story, with five great leading roles for women. Prospect is mounting the show as an actor-musician production, and it’s relatively portable. We’d love to speak to theaters who might be interested in bringing the show to life on their own stages. The show could also be produced with a separate band. We’d love to continue to share this story around the country as part of the 2019 centennial celebration of women’s suffrage, which was encouraged by the advent of women’s military service.
Why should everyone mark their calendars and make plans to see The Hello Girls?
Our cast is amazing! We have a super-talented ensemble of actor-musicians who bring such life and compassion to their roles—all while virtuosically playing instruments. Another highlight of The Hello Girls is the fantastic score by Peter Mills. We wanted to emphasize the relevance of this story in today’s world, and the musical styles span from the ragtime and jazz of a century ago, to songs which evoke contemporary rock and folk songs. The lyrics combine incredibly researched detail with delightful wordplay and catchy choruses. We hope audiences will go home humming the tunes—and inspired to keep fighting the good fight to break down barriers, wherever they exist!