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Friday, 11 February 2011 18:20

9 to 5: The Musical works harder, not smarter

Written by Sheila R. Schultz
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The Details

  • Director: Jeff Calhoun
  • Dates: February 8 - 20, 2011
9 to 5: The Musical works harder, not smarter

Secretaries, the gals who fetch coffee for the suits, type their fingers to the bone and make the boss look good. Perqs – are you kidding? And that's no paycheck, it's an insult. Been there, done that, with carbon paper-stained fingertips to prove it (that stuff never comes out). These ladies - unsung heroes until Dolly Parton, country music superstar, celebrated them in the title song of the 1980 smash film 9 to 5. With catchy lyrics and a rousing melody, it became the unofficial anthem of office workers.

Comedies of that vintage rarely hold up, but this movie is relevant and sassy as ever. The central plot of the musical is nearly identical to that of the movie. It's New York City, 1979. Three secretaries – Doralee (Diana DeGarmo), Judy (Mamie Parris), and Violet (Dee Hoty) – must cater to the whims of their boss, Franklin Hart, Jr. (Joseph Mahowald), "a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot". After a series of escapades, the oppressed trio exact revenge on their boss and receive the satisfaction they deserve. Hart ultimately gets his comeuppance.

 This musical production is brimming with energy and talent. As Doralee, DeGarmo displays the appropriate twang, backwoods glam and DD's. She also has the chops. Her bubbly performance creates its own spotlight. Darn tootin'! Judy, the new kid in the office, is portrayed by Parris, who lends credibility to the character's transformation from mouse to the embodiment of feminism. Her Act II song of defiance, "Get Out and Stay Out" is a show stopper. Yay, Judy!

Mahowald is inadequate as the sleazy boss. His failure saps the story's impact. It may be unfair to compare Mahowald to actor Dabney Coleman, who delivers a scrumptiously smarmy portrayal of Hart in the movie, but I can't help it, especially in light of the musical's calculated attempt to closely imitate the film.

Dolly Parton's score suffers from the same problem as that of Promises, Promises (Burt Bacharach and Hal David), also a period office musical adapted from a non-musical film. In both cases, the songwriters are multiple Grammy Award winners/nominees in the more mainstream musical genres of country and pop, respectively, but their considerable talents don't always transfer to theatre.

Parton's score includes "Backwoods Barbie," which illuminates character and "Around Here", which sets the tone of the office. (The latter is reminiscent of "Racing with the Clock" in The Pajama Game.) Other songs in Parton's score could be deleted without leaving gaps in the story. The libretto is structurally flawed. Songs often seem plopped into dialogue instead of carefully integrated. This brings the action to a halt instead of thrusting it forward. Personally, I don't hold with those who insist that a musical theatre song must advance the plot, but I do expect each song to maintain the momentum of its scene.

Musicals that exemplify a near seamless integration of dialogue and song include Oliver and The Music Man. This integration requires plausible transition from dialogue to song and back, but that's not all. A departure into song involves considerations of pacing, intensity and focus. There are numerous variables in the equation. Simply stated, the songs in 9 to 5 call too much attention to themselves.

A conspicuous gaffe, in my opinion, is the use of chorus extras for ridiculously lavish production numbers. Note to director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun: It's not cute. It's just plain hokey!

Another jarring visual involves the use of male secretaries/underlings alongside their apparent female counterparts. I flinch when a male actor sings the opening line: "Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen." If this is a nod to political correctness, it is misplaced. This musical is set in 1979. The movie clearly reflects the values of the Women's Lib Movement and demonizes both Mr. Hart and Judy's cheating ex-husband. Perhaps the producers want to remind us that not all men are scoundrels, but we get that message through a plausible new character: Joe, the decent young accountant with a crush on Violet.

When adapting a period piece, producers must decide whether to preserve the original era or update the production to contemporary standards. Typewriters, carbon paper and shirtwaist dresses proclaim the choice in this production. Consistency is key.

Consider another office musical set in bygone days, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The comic "A Secretary is Not a Toy" scene includes no boy toys. Some audience members may bristle at the blatant sexism, but it's worth the risk for historical accuracy. 9 to 5: the Musical isn't willing to take that risk.

This production joins the cavalcade of musicals adapted from non-musical movies, including Billy Elliot, The Producers, Legally Blonde, The Full Monty, Big, Young Frankenstein, Hairspray, Shrek. The success of such musicals depends largely on the book. Adaptation is tricky business.

The screenplay of 9 to 5 is co-written by Colin Higgins (Harold and Maude) and Patricia Resnick. Movies and plays have the same general objective, i.e., to convey characters and plot effectively, but each medium employs different means of enhancing the effect. Films like 9 to 5 exploit technical devices like close-ups, reaction shots and unusual camera angles to advantage.

Theatre is a more intimate medium. Too much gimmickry can interfere with the connection between audience and actor and obscure the sense of immediacy. Patricia Resnick resurfaces to write the book, which often feels like a transplantation of the screenplay. This gives the drama a two-dimensional quality. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case, it can backfire. The scene in which Judy, Violet and Doralee fantasize about getting revenge on Hart soars cinematically, but bombs onstage. There are undeniably entertaining moments in the play, but it's a mixed bag.

9 to 5: the Musical runs through February 20, 2011 at the Fox Theatre, located at 527 North Grand Blvd, 63103. Information is available at or by calling 314-534-1111.

Additional Info

  • Director: Jeff Calhoun
  • Dates: February 8 - 20, 2011

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