9 to 5: The Musical

9 to 5 is a silly, campy musical adaptation of the 1980 movie that starred Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda, but judging by the hilarity of the audience’s response, I wasn’t the only one in LA’s Ahmanson Theatre last Friday night who thought it was a whole lot of fun. With Allison Janney as the main draw in the wry, overworked, underpaid, professionally overlooked Tomlin role, along with Stephanie J. Block recreating an uptight, eager to be empowered Fonda and Megan Hilty giving her own physical and vocal impression of Parton, the faithful musical translation moves through the farcical story with crisp if unimaginative style under Joe Mantello’s direction.

To see three women as the leads in a Broadway musical, even in late 2008, is still great fun, as well as politically satisfying. The plot’s premise, set squarely in a historical moment of virulent materialism and overt misogyny, is that the sexist boss, Mr. Franklin Hart (Marc Kudisch, playing Dabney Coleman’s role), runs his corporate department with capricious control and focuses more on seducing his female employees than on the company’s bottom line. Violet Newstead (Janney), the steadfast office manager, trains one young man after another, only to see them achieve the promotions she deserves while she’s pushed squarely against an impenetrable glass ceiling. When another chance to move up the corporate ladder fails, a series of contrivances allows Violet to conspire with her co-workers Doralee (Hilty) and Judy (Block) to bring Hart down.

Judy is the prim, proper, newly divorced “newbie” who requires training in the quirks of office culture and Hart’s sexual and corporate malfeasance. Played by Block at first as a shivering mass of ineptitude and good will, she soon develops into a smart, dogged co-conspirator. Hart’s secretary, the buxom blonde Doralee, suffers the ostracism of her office-mates, because Hart has spread false rumors that the earnest Dolly Parton-look-alike is his mistress. Hilty (in costume) looks quite a lot like Parton, and conveys the same sense of sunny, torch-and-twang gusto.

The three women bond after a particularly bad day at work, when they retreat to Violet’s to smoke a joint provided by her teenage son (this is how we know it’s set in 1980). The women rock with contagious laughter, and spin pot-induced fantasies in which Hart gets his comeuppance. Back at work the next day, Violet thinks that she’s accidentally lived out her daydream by shaking rat poison into Hart’s coffee instead of sugar. Her hysteria prompts a series of madcap misunderstandings that lead the women to kidnap Hart, imprisoning him in his own home while they try to prove that he’s cooked the corporation’s books.

Hart spends much of the second act trussed up like a chicken in his bedroom. His hands and ankles are manacled, and when he gets out of control, the women use Violet’s garage door opener, attached to a harness, to raise him high into the air, where he kicks and screams like an out of control child.The women’s ingenuity and courage—as well as their humanity in dealing with their captive, unlike, say, the vicious woman in William Mastrosimone’s Extremities who mimics male violence—lets 9 to 5’s women get away with attempted murder.

Janney plays Tomlin’s role with equally wry aplomb. Her height alone makes her a commanding stage presence; she towers over the other two women and many of the men. But although her vocals reminded me of Rex Harrison’s, speak-singing his way through the melodies in My Fair Lady, Janney pulls off some respectable harmonies as the show progresses, holding her own through anthems and torch songs alike. She dances a fantasy number in a white silk suit ripped from the last scene of A Chorus Line, surrounded by male dancers whose moves camouflage her relative lack of skill. Janney carries off the part with the sheer force of her stage personality and her intelligent good humor.

Everyone involved in 9 to 5 throws themselves into the silliness with high spirits. Block and Hilty acquit themselves accordingly as Judy and Doralee, bringing them the sweetness and innocence that makes it easy to stomach the characters’ evolution into feminist professional determination.Kudisch plays Hart as a Dudley Doolittle type, but his over-the-top performance underlines that although the stereotype of the sexist male boss might be dated, it remains familiar and resonant.

Hart’s central henchman, Roz (Kathy Fitzgerald), plays Athena to his Zeus. Roz comes full of old pre-feminist female stereotypes: the heavy-set, overly capable woman, secretly in love with the boss, is so determined to curry his favor that she betrays her office mates, becoming a despised collaborator by enforcing Hart’s regressive policies. Mantello’s blocking makes sure we mock Roz’s crush on Hart; when she runs into his office, her large breasts jiggle in imitation of the much more seemly erotics of younger, prettier Doralee. The cheap laugh she wins makes the character and the actor seem pathetic, and the audience’s knee-jerk mirth makes us complicit in her degradation.

Sophomoric humor like this—tits and ass jokes, along with their male equivalents—knits together 9 to 5: The Musical, but its incipient feminism goes a way toward counterbalancing its offensiveness.Parton, who wrote the music and lyrics, and book writer Patricia Resnick create a tapestry of new songs and situations to flesh out the film’s scenes, all of which accumulate to represent 1980’s style proto-women’s liberation. Doralee/Dolly sings that there’s more to her than her appearance; Violet fixes the garage door opener and provides a self-actualized (if professionally foiled) role-model for her son; and when Judy’s straying husband crawls back expecting her to accept him with open arms, she shoos him out of her life for good, perfectly happy to be independent and working.

These messages telegraph Feminism 101, but hearing them in a Broadway-bound production still does a certain kind of hopeful cultural work. Although the show is set in 1980, corporate greed resonates even more in today’s failing markets. And although everyone’s now heard of the “glass ceiling,” it persists. Women in 9 to 5’s audience the night I saw it reacted with audible sounds of sisterhood, practically hissing at Hart’s antics. The musical’s cartoonish conception makes it easy (and fun) to cheer the heroines and boo the villain.

Like Wicked—which provides an entertaining intertext here, given Block and Hilty’s prior performances as Elphaba and Glinda, respectively, in the Broadway replacement cast—9 to 5 offers women the strong leading roles and keeps the men insignificant. Even Hart spends most of the second act immobilized, grunting or swearing with frustration at his captivity. Violet’s would-be paramour, Joe, is sweet but barely registers, except in a couple of obligatory duets. He helps Violet build evidence against Hart, but the erstwhile couple’s only displayed affection is a chaste kiss and some surreptitious hand-holding when they exit their central scene. Violet’s son exists mostly to provide her with the marijuana that loosens the trio’s morals and helps suture the their bond.Doralee’s husband shares only one scene with her, strumming his guitar while he listens to her complain about her mean workmates.

The show instead gives us three women getting high together, scheming together, watching each other’s backs and, as Hart languishes out of the way, making progressive changes in their work environment (albeit in his name, since no one but them knows he’s out of commission). They establish job-sharing plans that let women with children make their own hours, and a substance-abuse treatment program that lets their alcoholic co-worker get sober. They let the staff personalize their desks, bringing plants, color, and light into their grim corporate cubbyholes. The workers’ happiness increases the department’s productivity, prompting a visit from the chair of the board, a promotion for Hart (to bring multinationalism to the wilds of Bolivia), and finally, the hand up the corporate ladder Violet deserves for herself.

The musical’s implication that women executives will do things differently might now be anachronistic. Plenty of women follow the well-worn paths of conventional corporate behavior, and plenty of new companies with progressive politics are established and run by men. But still, the ethos of 1980s liberal feminism infuses 9 to 5 with good fun and unthreatening, nostalgic politics.

As a production, the musical falls short of the glitz brought to screen-to-stage translations such as, for only one instance, Legally Blonde, which managed to spiff up its live version with colorful costumes and a fluid sense of place that made up for its compression into the indoor world of an ivy league college, corporate boardrooms, and courtrooms. 9 to 5’s office set poses a more difficult challenge for its design team; it’s tricky to dance around desks, office chairs, and trash cans. In fact, the whole set is rather cumbersome, as the scene shifts from Hart’s office, to the typing pool, to the cafeteria, to Hart’s bedroom, and back, in an array of locations that gave the movie welcomed air, but makes the stage version busy and distracting.

Andy Blankenbuehler choreographs the dances around the trap door in the Ahmanson’s stage, a gaping square hole that opens when one section of the set lowers below the stage to be replaced with another. I spent much of the production worried that someone would misstep or get their timing wrong and wind up plunging into the abyss. The trap’s mechanism folds the floor up slowly and methodically each time it closes over the hole, throwing off the production’s otherwise brisk pacing. The cast moves around what comes to feel like a sink-hole center stage. Maybe Broadway’s technology can avoid this scenic stumbling block.

When 9 to 5 arrives at New York’s Marriott Marquis Theatre at the end of March 2009, it should be ready for primetime. The songs Parton’s created make it more closely resemble a jukebox musical than a conventional musical comedy; in fact, she lifts Doralee’s “Backwoods Barbie” number directly from her eponymous 2008 CD. But her torchy country songs appeal here, if nothing else because they heighten the emotionalism around plot twists that need a good bump up to make them compelling.

Approaching this campy outing with nostalgia for the original film and a healthy dose of forgiveness from the outset allowed me to enjoy its feminist-lite politics. I gave in to the pleasure of watching three female leads belt and bond and overcome male oppression with the ingenuities of farce and the spunk of woman-power.

What a way to make a living.

The Feminist Spectator

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