Taproot Theatre’s new production of “The Hello Girls” is a much needed history lesson. My education, like that of most Americans in public school, was limited to what the white patriarchy deemed important and safe to teach. Because of this, my education has become as much about what I learned in school as it is about what, as an adult, I’m learning was hidden from me then. Recent titles like “Hidden Figures,” “Code Girls,” and now “The Hello Girls” (written by Elizabeth Cobbs and published in 2017 by Harvard University Press) have helped shed light on some of the relatively unknown heroes who the textbooks have ignored. Call these the new American textbooks, if you will.
The popularity of these literary, theatrical and film records of women’s history in America proves a point: the American public, at large, is eager to go back to school and learn about the extraordinary women who helped the country achieve major victories, making invaluable contributions across the fields of technology, war and politics. Taproot Theatre’s penultimate production of its 2023 season, “The Hello Girls,” directed by Karen Lund, is based on the aforementioned book and brings to life a history lesson about women who made a huge impact in all three fields.
The musical, written in 2018 by Peter Mills and Cara Reichel, centers on the titular Hello Girls, female telephone operators recruited by the U.S. Army to serve as part of the Signal Corps in World War I. Their skills working for the Bell Telephone Company were extremely useful for the task at hand: to relay messages about crucial information, like troop movements and supplies, from headquarters straight to the frontlines. Essentially, these women, who have been mostly invisible in history books throughout the last century, were fighting in the war. While stationed in France as switchboard operators, they communicated information that shaped the strategy on the ground.
The Hello Girls’ efforts and sacrifice went unrewarded for decades, until President Jimmy Carter enacted the G.I. Bill Improvement Act of 1977 almost 60 years after the Armistice, granting them veterans status, along with benefits and receipt of the WWI Victory Medal. This long overdue gesture of recognition was sadly not something the majority of the women who served in the Signal Corps got to experience; of the 223 Hello Girls who served during the war, only 18 were still alive in 1977. None of the 205 other women who helped America win the war even got a chance to be buried in a national cemetery as veterans.
The musical aims to rectify this injustice by introducing five of the Hello Girls, led by Grace Banker (Cassi Q Kohl). The show takes the audience on the emotional journeys of these women, who embody different reasons for wanting to serve in the war and yet band together with a camaraderie and familiarity that feels remarkably authentic and all the more moving because of the joy and exuberance they radiate even when death, destruction and inequality loom large in the background. This raw humanity held a mirror to my own human experience. As I watched them rejoice, I rejoiced; their hopes became mine, as did their fears and passions. I felt every victory, setback and surprise they experienced viscerally, which is a testament to the power of a cast that carries the entire story forward without any bells and whistles. Indeed, the stripped-down design only highlighted the actors’ talents, since each scene came alive with barely any special effects or elaborate set pieces.
To say more about these highs and lows would give away much of the thrill of the play, which makes this particular history lesson feel fresh by keeping the audience invested in these remarkable women and making the information we’re learning feel urgent and timely. Certain lines about the threats of nationalism, inequality and patriarchal structures can easily be applied to modern America.
This modernity is inherently a strength in the script, but what elevates it further is the fantastic music that drives the story forward — and this cast’s incredible musical talents. Actors not only play musical instruments in the pit throughout the show, but they handle this formidable challenge with a seamless grace and agility that is one of the most impressive feats in the production, along with the tight harmonies that showcase the technical skill of the cast.
Songs like “Answer the Call” and “Making History” are sure to be audience favorites (as well as perfect bookends for the show), as well as Grace’s showstopper “Twenty,” which lists 20 reasons why women should be allowed to serve in the war (and delivers the fiercest and most memorable conclusion to a musical number in quite possibly the last decade). They support an empowering narrative that drives a larger point home.
Kohl, in her performance as Grace, powerfully balances ambition, compassion and the internal conflict that her choices and rank as chief operator cause her spirit — or, more simply, as Gen. John Pershing puts it in a key scene, “grace under pressure.” Kohl beautifully displays how much Grace is the embodiment of her name.
While many theatergoers may say this show is all about “girl power” — which is always wonderful to see in theater — that phrase doesn’t really encapsulate the grand scale of the ideas and themes in “The Hello Girls.” This musical is about women’s resilience; about the choices that rearrange existing social and political structures; about how inequality can sometimes be excused by oppressors who frame it as beneficial to the oppressed because with less power comes less responsibility; about why women’s stories are both fascinating and essential to our understanding of American history; and about courage defined as action in the face of fear, despite it and not in the absence of it. This is not simple, sugarcoated “girl power;” this is “knowledge power.”
The more we know about the history outside of our textbooks, the more we’ll respect the progress we’ve made. Plus, I hope, the more we’ll want to preserve and expand that progress. In a world where our rights are not promised from one day to the next and where our fight to create a more just and equal society is an ongoing battle, stories like “The Hello Girls” remind us that we’ve been fighting this fight for a long time and, the longer we do, the more victories will be added to the pile of setbacks.
Taproot’s “The Hello Girls” is making history of its own: this is the first professional production of the musical directed by anyone other than the original playwright. As the play becomes more known — and rightfully so — the story will enter the public consciousness more and more, but this moment is a special one. You can experience this production before the hype, as it breaks new ground in Greenwood through Aug. 19. In the midst of the chaos of a remembered war, “The Hello Girls” emerges victorious.
Johannes Saca is a writer and actor living in Seattle. Find him on Instagram and Twitter @JohannesSaca.
Read more of the Aug. 2-8, 2023 issue.