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Passion play: bringing Thoroughly Modern Millie to Broadway is the culmination of author Dick Scanlan's tumultuous life. (theater).

In 1995, suffering from the worst ravages of HIV, Dick Scanlan nevertheless continued pouring money into his dream of creating a stage version of the 1967 film Thoroughly Modern Millie, paying for readings and plane tickets to Los Angeles to collaborate with the author of the screenplay, Richard Morris. Seven years later, Scanlan is feeling fit, and Millie is making a triumphant debut on Broadway on April 18.

"I never want to imply that I lived because I have a stronger life drive than the people who died," Scanlan says, emphatically crediting his rebound to the anti-HIV drug cocktail instead. "I've lost so many people who I knew to be passionate and committed to their lives. That said, it is absolutely true that your outlook contributes to your longevity. I chose to keep investing in my future--even when I had no future."

What Scanlan did have was a vision. His Thoroughly Modern Millie is a total reimagining of the campy 1967 film, which featured Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Scanlan and Morris reworked the story--which traces Millie's search for a rich husband while staying at a boardinghouse run by white slave traders--and Scanlan penned lyrics for 10 new songs. The preview staging in La Jolla, Calif., left critics hyperventilating. "Breezy, frothy and unapologetically joyful," gushed the showbiz bible Variety, "Millie is a ... tonic for whatever ails you."

The origin of that tonic was a summerhouse in Southampton, N.Y., where Scanlan hosted friends each weekend in the late 1980s and early `90s, when he was ill. When guests wanted to watch a video after dinner, the only choices were Caligula and a copy of Thoroughly Modern Millie taped off late-night TV.

"Week after week my friends would choose Millie," Scanlan recalls, smiling. "So I'd watch it over and over, and I was struck that for a movie that is perceived as silly, it has six principal characters who have profound objectives to change their lives in some way. You have Millie, this girl from nowhere, who has the same feelings about New York City that I always had as a kid--that it is literally a place that you can go and become the person that you've always felt you were inside. In a sense, what she is doing is coming out."

Scanlan finally got the nerve to telephone Morris, who owned the rights, in 1991--only to have him hang up the phone when Scanlan suggested that they collaborate. After being rebuffed several more times, Scanlan convinced the curmudgeonly Morris to meet him face-to-face. "He liked me right away," says Scanlan. "He completely trusted his intuition. We had so much in common--we were both 6-foot-2 Irish Catholics whose first name was Dick."

Morris's faith in Scanlan grew even as they both faced life-threatening illnesses. But as Scanlan's condition began to improve thanks to protease inhibitors, Morris got worse, unable to fight off bladder cancer that had spread to his lungs. As the two worked feverishly to complete the Millie book, their bond grew deeper. "I asked him if he'd ever been in love," recalls Scanlan. "He said, `I don't think so.' And then he got quiet for a moment and then said, `No, I think I have been in love.' And he pointed at me." Shortly after finishing the first draft, in 1996, Morris died.

Thoroughly Modern Millie represents the culmination of Scanlan's tumultuous life. A Bethesda, Md., native, he studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University until he was kicked out for not showing sufficient "professional promise"--code words, he says, for being too feminine. He moved to New York in 1981, working as a comedian and landing a series of small acting gigs, including a memorable role in the drag show Pageant, in which he played Miss Great Plains. "There was kind of a catharsis for finally employing all the parts of yourself that up until that point had only caused you pain," he observes.

Tragedy struck when his partner of five years, Kees Chapman, died of complications from AIDS in 1988. "He had always thought I should write, and I thought he was nuts," Scanlan recalls. "When he died, I started writing. The mandate that his death gave me: Life is short--fill it with the things that mean something to you."

Scanlan's Broadway debut honors both his lost loves. "I will feel so proud to have known and worked with Richard," he says of Millie's original creator. "I will be thrilled for audiences to hear his voice again."

But the show also symbolizes a personal transformation for Scanlan--not unlike the one that Millie undergoes during the course of the play. "It happens for Millie in about three weeks, and for me it took about 20 years," he says. "I understand now what's important in life--that you only have in your life what you put in. It rings terribly true for me."
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Article Details
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Author:Meers, Erik
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 30, 2002
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