Rosemarie Chandler

Rosemarie Chandler, who lived at Luke Air Force Base as a child, plays Grace Banker in The Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of “The Hello Girls.”

After spending her childhood on Luke Air Force Base, Rosemarie Chandler finds it fitting that she’s playing one of the first women in combat during World War I in “The Hello Girls” by the Phoenix Theatre Company.

“The Hello Girls,” which runs through Jan. 30, stars Chandler as Grace Banker, a switchboard operator in charge of a corps of women who went overseas during World War I. 

The daughter of two military parents, Chandler lived on Luke AFB in the mid-1990s at the age of 4. 

She recalled her parents attending a charity ball and leaving her older brother in charge. Instead of listening to him, she locked herself and her best friend’s neighbor in her dad’s military closet filled with freshly pressed and dry-cleaned suits. 

“I started doing makeup and got makeup all over his flight suits and dress suits,” Chandler said. “My mom came home, and she was furious.”

Her younger brother is now stationed at Luke Air Force Base. During visits, she hears stories from female lieutenants. 

“It’s definitely been hugely impactful to understand that part of my mom and also what it is like to be a woman in general in the military today,” Chandler said. “They’ve come so far and made great strides, but I think there are still ways we can become even more inclusive.”

Her mother was a protocol officer in the Navy for Adm. William Crowe and traveled around the world with him. It was also how her parents met.

“They held the same rank,” Chandler said. “I love that part of their story. The first time he walked into the office, my mom was doing paperwork. She didn’t even look up, she just handed him his paperwork and said, ‘Here you go, Mr. Chandler.’ My dad was smitten right away and went about pursuing her.” 

Uncharted waters

The women in “The Hello Girls” had a more challenging route, as there were no women in the military. The musical is a modern retelling of a critical part of history in the struggle for women’s rights. 

The women were part of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, typically known as “The Hello Girls.” They were bilingual telephone operators who helped turn the tide in World War I and fought to make their way to the front lines. After the war, they spent decades fighting for equality and recognition.

The story jumped out at Cara Reichel, the show’s director and co-writer.

“As someone who makes musicals, I’m always on the lookout for stories and ideas,” Reichel said. “I kind of have a mental Rolodex of things. I remember clearly when I first encountered their story — a very brief mention of them in a larger documentary on the history of women in the military. The name was ‘Unsung Heroes,’ and I thought maybe someone should sing about these women.”

Reichel co-wrote the musical with her husband, Peter Mills. The couple, along with college friends, founded the Prospect Theater in New York 20 years ago. “The Hello Girls” premiered there. 

“This show is an opportunity to tell a slice of history that had a significant impact on women’s rights in our country but isn’t very well known,” Reichel said. “The characters depict real-life military heroines who disrupted the status quo during the early 20th century and helped pivot the first world war’s outcome.”

The National Endowment for the Arts commissioned “The Hello Girls,” and she and Mills researched these women’s stories. 

“We came across a lot of fun things that inspired songs,” Reichel said. “One of the earliest songs was actually the title song. That was inspired by a particular article we read in the Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. It had a writeup for the Hello Girls, and it was interesting to see how the men in the Army thought about them. There were some sexist perceptions, but there was also a real positivity that they were helping in the war effort.”

They also researched how the switchboards worked. The song “Connected” teaches the audience and the characters how switchboards work. It’s also a metaphor for voices coming together. 

The music immediately inspired Chandler. 

“Just the way the writers Peter Mills and Cara Reichel capture moments that are so tense, such as when they’re sailing across the Atlantic,” Chandler said. “It gives me goosebumps. Then, at the end of the play we come together as an ensemble and sing about making history. We ask the audience the question, ‘How do you want to make an impact?’”

The music, she said, spans many genres. 

“There’s your classic Broadway number titled ‘The Hello Girls’ when they first arrive in Paris and the doughboys are thrilled to have American operators,” she said.

“It’s a Broadway dance number. You even have a rock number called ‘The Front’ where the girls get together and agree that they need to get to the front whatever it takes and they make a pact to make it happen.”

She said recurring musical phrases define the characters. 

“If I could describe the music in two words, it is smart and moving,” Chandler said. “It’s really just an honor and a joy to be able to sing it.”

“The Hello Girls” premiered in New York in 2018 and received three Drama Desk Award nominations for outstanding musical, music and lyrics. 

“It still feels relevant,” Reichel said. “We are fighting the war against COVID. This requires us to come together as a society and solve problems. I hope that the show will have an even deeper resonance given what we are going through. We were just really grateful that the Phoenix Theatre reached out to us and wanted to tell the story here in this community.

“It’s not only a celebration and testament to the Hello Girls, but the arc of the story really turns to the audience and makes us ask a question of them. I hope the audiences walk away from it asking how they want to answer the call in their life and how do want to make an impact on people. That’s all that really matters at the end of the day. Without each other, we would be nothing.” 

 

If You Go...

WHAT: “The Hello Girls”

WHEN: Various times through Jan. 30

WHERE: The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Hormel Theatre, 1825 N. Central Avenue, Phoenix

COST: Tickets start at $44

INFO: 602-254-2151,  phoenixtheatre.com