Musical Insight on the Hello Girls with Peter Mills

July 24, 2017

The Hello Girls of World War I have piqued the interest of Prospect’s resident writer, composer / lyricist Peter Mills, as inspiration for a new musical. Many thanks to the National Endowment of the Arts for granting Prospect Theater Company funds to commission and develop this new piece. The interview below features some of Mills’ ideas and background for his approach to the show.


1. How did you find out about the story of the Hello Girls?

My artistic collaborator, Prospect’s Artistic Director Cara Reichel told me about it after she heard the story on a PBS documentary a couple years ago.  At the time, we were applying to be artists in residence at a particular college musical theater program.  The idea was that we would develop a new musical of ours using performers in the program.  So we were looking for a story idea that would offer a lot of roles for younger performers, and THE HELLO GIRLS seemed like a perfect fit.  The “girls” in question were young women, mostly in their 20s, who worked as telephone operators in the Signal Corps during World War 1; they were the first women officially to serve in the US Army.  And naturally, many of the male roles — the soldiers and officers — would be appropriate for college-age performers as well.
Anyway, as luck would have it, we didn’t get the residency.  But based on the research we’d done to put together that proposal, we were convinced that it was a great story — and one that not a lot of people knew.  Of course, in the last couple years, during the centennial of America’s involvement in World War 1, there has been more and more attention given to the Hello Girls.  Earlier this year, a new book on the subject was published, and the author has been making the rounds, talking about it on NPR and elsewhere.  Cara laughs at me because whenever I hear one of those interviews I fret a bit and say, “too many people are going to find out about the story!”

2. You’ve written several shows inspired by historical research.  How do you approach the process?  What are the challenges?

The process begins with the research, learning as much about the history, the people, and the circumstances as possible.  In the case of THE HELLO GIRLS, some of that research has been into switchboards and telephone operator work — just trying to understand the work these women were doing — since it’s all a bit alien to us in the age of cell phones!  After all of this fact-finding, then the real work begins, which is deciding what the particular story is that will be told.  Who are the characters that we will follow?  What is the arc of the plot?  How will it be broken down into scenes?I think one of the major challenges in writing a show based on history is finding a story that is both dramatically satisfying but also reasonably faithful to the facts.  It’s always a bit of a negotiation between those two priorities.  When your characters are real people, you want to be respectful and accurate.  But at the same time, you want to tell their story in a way that will be the most engaging for an audience — and history has a way of not always playing out in as dramaturgically pleasing a way as one might wish for the sake of storytelling.  Still, it’s usually possible to tell a good story without having to play too fast and loose with the facts.  It’s often a question of what you choose to focus on — the lens through which you view the material.

At war, on duty

3. What do you imagine the music of this world sounds like?

Part of the research involves listening to period music, and also other musicals set in a similar time period, all with an ear toward finding the right sound world for the show.  For instance, Sousa-style marches seem like an almost inevitable ingredient for a story of this time period, set in the world of the military.  But also, a lot of the story takes place in France and the girls themselves were recruited in part for their French-speaking abilities, so it seems appropriate that there might be a French flavor to some songs, especially those informed by a sense of place.  And then again, it is also a story about daring, pioneering women who were breaking down social barriers — and in that respect, there’s a bit of the spirit of the Jazz Age… which was just around the corner.

Above all, I decided early on that I wanted the score to be more musical theater than a faithful period pastiche.  And what I mean by that is that I want the music to serve the story and the characters above all, even if it means that there may be some anachronistic musical elements in the show.  That’s why I wanted to listen not only to source music from the actual time period, but also musicals set in a similar time period — to see how they made use of the period style in their scores.  Ahrens and Flaherty’s RAGTIME is an example of the kind of thing to which I aspire:  the musical style throughout is strongly evocative of the time period in which the show is set.  (A decade or so before THE HELLO GIRLS.)  But the way those sounds are used is more sophisticated than the ragtime, blues and vaudeville forms from which the score is drawing.
The Chief Operator

Grace Banker

4. Do you have a favorite character so far?

One of the great things about THE HELLO GIRLS is that there are six women at the center of the story, and they’re all fun characters.  In some ways, I think this is an ensemble piece about a particular squad — who were sent to serve at the front during the pivotal Battle of the Argonne Forest.  But if I had to pick a main character (and also a favorite character), it would be Grace Banker, who was the leader of that squad.  Of course, I know Grace a little better than some of the others because she kept a diary about her war-time experiences — in defiance of Army regulations!  That defiant streak is one of the things I love about her.  Because it was also Grace who refused to abandon her post at the front when the building housing the telephone exchange caught fire… And then after her squad finally left the post (under threat of court-martial), it was Grace who led her operators back to the switchboards as soon as the fire had been put out, to continue connecting calls with those lines that hadn’t been destroyed in the fire.  For this, she was given the Distinguished Service Medal after the war.  In the years prior to World War 1, one of the arguments against women’s suffrage had been that women were not expected to risk their lives in service of the nation, as men were.  So it could be argued that the role played by women like Grace during World War 1 was a strong contributing factor to the United States granting women the right to vote in 1920.

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