Hello Girls musical Onstage in NYC; Q&A with Creative Team

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The Hello Girls
L to R Ben Moss, Cathryn Wake, Scott Wakefield, Skyler Volpe, Ellie Fishman, Chanel Karimkhani, Lili Thomas.
Photo by Richard Termine.
The New York City musical The Hello Girls is now playing Off-Broadway until December 22. It tells the story of the female U.S. Signal Corps operators in World War I. While this chapter of U.S. history has been the subject of a documentary and book, it has now been brought to the stage. The creative team, Cara Reichel and Peter Mills, were kind enough to take a five-question Q&A about the show. Cara co-wrote the book with Peter, and is the show’s director. In addition to co-writing the book, Peter wrote the music and lyrics. They are part of the Prospect Theater Company, which is producing the show running now at the 59 East 59 Theatre. The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission has endorsed The Hello Girls. Ticket information is here.

Where did the idea to make a musical based on the Hello Girls come about? And why do you think this story is worth telling?

In 2014, Cara 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 U.S. Army during World War I, bi-lingual telephone operators serving on the front lines with the Signal Corps—were included in a brief segment. Their story immediately intrigued both of us. We were so taken by the courage these women must have had, and continue to be inspired by their service and actions, both during and after the war. We think others will be, too!

The Hello Girls
L to R Cathryn Wake, Scott Wakefield, Skyler Volpe, Ellie Fishman, Arlo Hill, Lili Thomas.
Photo by Richard Termine.
What does the story focus on and how did it evolve around these characters?

Our show focuses mostly on the period in 1918 when the “Hello Girls” were recruited and sent overseas. In particular, we follow a group of 5 women—led by Chief Operator Grace Banker, who eventually received the Distinguished Service Medal—who are sent to serve on the front lines. The strength of character and friendships of this group at the center of our tale is powerful to watch, not to mention fun! We researched many different women who served, and eventually settled on our five characters. They are all inspired by real people, but for a few characters we fused together stories from multiple women. The male characters are primarily fictional—except General Pershing, of course.

We also tell the coda of the story: After they returned to the U.S., the women who served learned they were considered civilian contractors, and therefore were not eligible for veterans benefits. Some of the women then fought a legal battle for almost 60 years to achieve recognition of their veterans’ status.

The music and lyrics move the story forward. What inspired you to tell the Signal Corps operators’ story in music and song?

As artists whose work is primarily focused on musical theater, we begin from the idea that our stories will be told musically—so we are always looking for material where we think music will add to the richness of the storytelling, and for characters who will “sing.” We were intrigued by the ways in which this was unconventional subject matter for a musical: a story in which most of the lead roles are for women; a story about men and women that is not based on a romance. We found that it was never hard to write music for this story. There is so much adventure and color and movement; the material naturally sings as we travel through time, space, and strong emotion. And our actor-musician approach seemed to fit very nicely with the model of a military band, and heightened the theme of teamwork at the heart of the story.

Is there one particular scene or element you are most proud of?

For Pete, it’s Grace Banker’s second act solo, “Twenty”—in which she confronts her commanding officer and fights for her team’s right to serve on the front lines. It’s the song that feels the most essential to telling the story of these first women soldiers, the heart of the dramatic conflict. And it’s a very strong and pro-active moment for our main character Grace—a song where you feel like she truly earns her status as the heroine of this story.

Cara is particularly proud of how the actor-musician concept for the show has come together. We have a phenomenal cast that is doing extraordinary work! The multi-tasking challenge we’ve placed before the performers has brought them together in a beautiful way to tell this story—the company has bonded into an incredible team, and their energy metaphorically reflects the dedication and hard work of the women and men of WWI. Everyone believes so passionately in sharing this history!

100 years later, why should we remember the Hello Girls?

Sharing the story of these remarkable women is a reminder of the perseverance required in the ongoing struggle for equality. We hope people will walk away from the show knowing more about the story of these groundbreaking women from one hundred years ago—but also be uplifted and inspired to become more engaged in our contemporary world. It is the millions of people each contributing to America’s story on a daily basis who are “making history” every day.

Thank you, Cara and Peter.

For more information about the show and to get tickets, click here.