You can have Dolly Parton in your next musical.
After the musical had closed on Broadway in 2009, Parton decided that a video introduction might be just what the national tour could use. A couple of weeks ago at Music Theatre of Wichita, I saw that she was still 9 to 5’s honorary narrator-emcee, bringing us back to 1979, “before computers and cell phones — when Apples and Blackberries were something I picked out behind the barn,” she said in her trademark drawl.
More to the point, 1979 was still a time when “the boss wasn’t interested in the women’s movement,” Parton said, “unless it was happening under his desk.”
Parton introduced us to our three main characters who work at Consolidated: Violet, the widowed long-suffering “secretary,” as the position was the unceremoniously known; her co-worker Doralee, the flashy dresser with the enormous hair. Said Parton, “She’s sexy, she’s sweet – oh, you know who she is.” The way that the MTW audience laughed showed that it indeed knew that Parton had played Doralee in the original 1979 film.
Finally, Parton also told us about Judy, the career housewife whose husband had dumped her for a 19-year-old. At the moment, Judy was terribly intimidated, for she didn’t know a typewriter keyboard from a keypunch. That could be a problem, for Violet informed her in a Parton song that “We got no time to lose around here.”
In Wichita, Paula Leggett Chase had already taken her own advice, for she’d had no time to lose in preparing this musical. MTW mounts a first-class production after a mere nine days of rehearsal – then out of the hat comes that big first night.
Chase was marvelous. On Broadway, you had to love Allison Janney, a dramatic actress who wanted the experience of doing a musical — and acquitted herself nicely. But Janney didn’t have the innate musical theater gene that Chase has – the type of talent that you see in abundance in your theater company. If there’s one thing every troupe has, it’s a bevy of talented female musical theater performers.
Of course, there’s a fat role for a man, too: Mr. Hart, whose surname will never be confused with “heart.” Damon Kirsche wisely portrayed him in the way all villains should be portrayed: he doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy. “I’m here for her” is the way he looks at offering his body to Doralee.
In the scene in which Hart denied Violet’s promotion, Kirsche showed that he truly believed his reason: “Clients prefer to deal with a man.” Nevertheless, the character remained, as he’s often described, “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Exhibit-A: he told Judy that “You’re not bad-looking for girl who has a little tread worn off your tires.”
And then there was Dick, Judy’s ex-husband-to-be. John Keckeisen wisely played him a shleppy guy — indicating that older men still have a better chance of getting young women than older women have of getting younger men. Ah, but 9 to 5 proves that’s not entirely true. Violet was pursued all show long by Joe, a substantially younger man.
The Broadway program simply established that 9 to 5 was set in “an office” but the feel of the production made the show seem to be set in New York. Everyone’s accent sounded northeast, which wasn’t a problem in itself, but it became one when people broke into song – for Parton’s score did have that country twang.
So director Mark Madama was smart to specifically set the show in Memphis – and you’d be wise to keep below the Mason-Dixon Line, too. That way, the actors can adopt Southern accents that will lead nicely into the songs.
So what else will you need besides the video equipment to show Dolly Parton? For the musical numbers set in the office, weld your office chairs to your desks-on-rollers, so that the performers in them can roll around and have the desks “dance.”
For the scene in which Judy does poorly with the photocopy machine, you’ll need a device that spews out paper in anarchic fashion. Chances are that in some corner of the theater, you’ve stored just such a photocopier that you always meant to get fixed. Now you’ll be glad you didn’t get around to it.
You’ll need to build bathroom stalls worthy of an office ladies’ room. A very important plot point has Roz, the office spy (another nice female role), standing on the (unseen) toilet so she won’t be spotted by Violet, Doralee and Judy. Alas, however, if you have a theater with little or no fly-space, you may have a problem. The plot has Hart flying in and hanging in the air on a harness.
You’ll also need an indulgent audience that conservative communities don’t always have. A big part of 9 to 5 involves smoking marijuana. Well, it was the ‘70s, when some did experiment. What ameliorates the situation is that one little doobie (as it’s chummily called here) is enough for three grown women – indicating that they’re all first time users.
Most of 9 to 5, however, is universal. Male or female, MTW audiences related well to 9 to 5, for it reminded them of that person in the office they never could stand, not to mention the boss they’d always hated. The sanest of them would never act out the way Violet, Doralee and Judy did, but they certainly enjoyed seeing variations on our their revenge fantasies. Two wrongs don’t make a right – but the end of 9 to 5 did seem to semi-justify the means.
Most every theatergoer has been dumped by a lover or spouse. Many will relate to Judy, who’d do anything to get her man back … until she realizes that she is much better off without him. Judy makes the biggest change in the show, going from an Act One dormouse to the woman who in Act Two closes the door on a suddenly penitent husband. Darcie Roberts did splendidly in crowing her anthem of independence, and the MTW crowd gave her the biggest hand of the night. The actress you have playing Judy will relish the chance to match that tumultuous applause.
9 to 5 succeeds in offering a nice message: three women who believed they had nothing in common at show’s start band together and learn that in union there is strength. The musical also says that if employees were given more benefits, they’d benefit their companies more. They’d come to appreciate job sharing, flexible hours and day care services, and wouldn’t take advantage. Things can change for the better.
Truth to tell, a deus ex machina comes in, and soon 9 to 5 turns into a fairy tale. But the ride has been such fun that we forgive this sudden, unexpected and all-too-convenient turn. Finally, Parton returns in her video to bring us up to date with the characters we’ve come to love and hate.
Granted, Parton’s video participation isn’t enough for you to advertise her on your posters. However, considering that she points to stage right to introduce Violet and Judy — as well as stage left to bring on Doralee — you can generously give Dolly Parton a co-directorial credit for blocking a few minutes of the show for you.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His newest book, Broadway Musical MVPs, 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons, is now available through Applause Books and at www.amazon.com.