The Hello Girls brought a lesser-known aspect of World War 1 (WW1) to centre stage. The musical is based on five real women who fought on the front lines during WW1. They were stationed in France, deployed to the phones to help coordinate efforts in the war. After some anticipatory hesitation, the women embrace the opportunity, bonding while they experience the events together. In the stage introduction, musical director and actress for the character of Suzanne Prevot, Ylaria Rogers, emphasised the musical’s relevance. The events of WW1 were characterised by increased divisiveness, rising nationalism, and of course, the fight for gender equality. Without context, these statements could easily apply to society today.
The musical portrayed the story with spirited vigour. The script was filled with witty, comedic lines – often from the ‘Hello Girls’against the sexist attitudes levelled against them. The characters even mock their condescending collective nickname ‘The Hello Girls’, implying the term trivialises their important work. The musical also highlighted the sexism of the time, evident in the lines performed by the male soldiers referring to war as ‘no job for women.’ These traditional, sexist attitudes of women as delicate and sensitive were veiled under a false protectiveness. The value of participating in conflict is up for debate, however, a key indicator of equality is freedom of choice. The Hello Girls were instrumental in opening this opportunity for future generations.
The musicalbrought the audience on an emotional journey alongside its characters. Each character had their own unique background and challenges. Helen Hill (played by Petronella Van Tienen) was a young woman from a rural area, managing the significantly different experience of working on the front lines. The musical expressed the strong friendship between Grace Banker (played by Rhianna McCourt) and Suzanne Prevot. This relationship portrayed the collegiality between the women, particularly in times of self-doubt when the women encouraged and supported one another. Complex feelings of sacrifice were displayed, culminating in McCourt’s performance after Grace Banker received the news of her father’s passing. And of course – the women’s disappointment and disbelief when ‘The Hello Girls’ were denied veteran status.
To review this musical without talking about the music itself would be entirely amiss. As promised, The Hello Girls was filled with ‘folk and pop earworms.’ The music was lively and expressive, and sung beautifully by the cast. The musical embraced a diversion from a strictly Broadway sound, with some pieces using discordant harmonies to express plot and character complications. The musical’s big sound was produced by an only 5-person ensemble. The band was largely hidden by the set design, however, musical director Alexander Unikowski was just visible enough for the audience to see him conduct while also playing keyboard, guitar, trumpet, trombone and clarinet parts!
Although media products about war can run the risk of glorifying atrocities, The Hello Girls avoids this pitfall, instead offering a timely and important insight into women’s history.