During the 1980s when women were just beginning to make gains in their fight for equality in the workplace, Dolly Parton’s song “9 to 5” became an anthem to secretaries and office workers who felt invisible and unappreciated. The movie captured the time perfectly and provided catharsis and comic relief to the many talented women who worked for men who were not as smart or were dismissive of their abilities. The new stage production of 9 to 5: The Musical, which opened last night at the Marquis Theater, is true to its roots, even though much has changed since the movie’s release in 1979.
In this new musical version of the workplace comedy, Allison Janney, Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty are superb as the main characters. Allison Janney, best known for her 4-time Emmy Award winning performance on The West Wing, takes on the role of Violet, the efficient and highly competent office manager. Violet finds herself working for Franklin Hart, Jr. (Marc Kudish) a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” who passes her over for countless promotions that he awards to less competent men. Stephanie J. Block, straight off a run as Elphaba in Wicked, plays the role of new divorcee, never worked before, Judy Bernly. The trio of women is completed with the role originated by Dolly Parton, Doralee Rhodes, and is played by Megan Hilty, who as the sexy executive secretary to Hart must endure his gropes and advances on an hourly basis. For fans of the movie, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda played the other women of the trio, respectively. Hart was played by Dabney Coleman.
The show opens with Dolly Parton’s hit, “9 to 5,” which makes for a rousing beginning. While the show, like the movie, takes place in 1979, the writer, Patricia Resnick, has given it a more contemporary feel by allowing some of the peripheral male characters their place in the miserable lower rungs of the workplace ladder. But the show clearly belongs to the women. Allison Janney is perfect as the ambitious, frustrated Violet, who is eager to succeed, but who knows the way to success is through hard work and respect for others. Janney has tremendous stage presence and her comic timing is a true surprise to those of us who know her in more serious roles. Stephanie J. Block, as Judy Bernly, expertly portrays the insecurities of a divorced housewife who needs to work when her husband runs off with a much younger woman. Block brings down the house with the showstopper, “Get Out and Stay Out” and is sure to garner a Tony Award nomination. Megan Hilty is adorable as Doralee Rhodes, the good southern girl whose sexiness is as natural as her affection for her husband and her low cut blouses. Hilty has captured the essence of Dolly Parton, but has managed the near impossible feat of claiming that role for herself.
The score for 9 to 5 has been written entirely by Dolly Parton, who wrote an additional 16 songs for the musical. Most have a country western feel; some are superb and others are forgettable. The standouts are “One of the Boys” a tour de force for Janney, as she fantasizes about becoming a CEO. “Backwoods Barbie,” a song previously recorded by Parton, is a real treat and “Get Out and Stay Out” provides a much-needed showstopper. Though it comes at the very end of the show, it is definitely worth the wait.
Will 9 to 5 be the next great American musical? Probably not. But many of Parton’s songs may prove memorable. (The movie’s theme, “9 to 5,” was Parton’s biggest hit of the decade and served to launch her into the mainstream). And it’s nice to see a show where women are front and center. For those of us who found joy in the movie, we should plan to take our daughters to teach them something about the pioneers of the workplace. The show may prove more educational than Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
9 to 5: The Musical
The Marquis Theatre