Women plot revenge against a sexist ’70s boss in ‘9 to 5: The Musical’ (what a way to make a livin’)
It’s 8:59 a.m. You are half asleep. Traffic couldn’t have been worse. You spilled coffee on your shirt racing for the elevator. You get to your desk only to hear your “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss shouting at you that the stapler is broken, you need to pick up a new one and some coffee, too — with sweetener — if it wouldn’t be too much of a bother.
For millions of female (and male) office workers, such a scenario, captured vividly in the 1980 movie “9 to 5” — starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton — is hardly fiction.
Although nearly 30 years have passed since the film’s release, a time when the term “sexual harassment” had barely entered the lexicon, the hassles and harassment of the “9 to 5” life are still all too real.
At least that’s the idea behind the new musical adaptation of the film, which will have its world premiere Sept. 20 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, before moving on to Broadway.
The new production stars Emmy Award-winning actress Allison Janney (best known as the press secretary in “West Wing”), “Wicked” alums Stephanie J. Block and Megan Hilty as members of the secretarial pool of Consolidated Companies, along with the corrupt Vice President Franklin Hart Jr. (Marc Kudisch).
The story features three women who have had it with obnoxious, chauvinistic bullying from their boss. Office manager Violet Newsted (Janney) not only trained Hart but has constantly been passed over for promotion. Shy recent divorcee Judy Bernly (Block) gets the brunt of Hart’s anger after an incident with a haywire copy machine. And buxom executive secretary Doralee Rhodes (Hilty) has to put up with Hart’s constant sexual advances.
Together, they decide to fight back.
Through a crazy turn of events, luck and smarts, the trio — who are barely acquaintances at the beginning of the show — find a way to expose Hart and turn the department around.
“9 to 5: The Musical” follows in the footsteps of a long line of film-to-stage adaptations, such as “The Producers,” “The Color Purple” and “Hairspray.” Its creative team includes Tony-winning director Joe Mantella (“Wicked”) and Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”). Music and lyrics are by original “9 to 5” cast member and multi-Grammy winner Parton, who penned all the songs for the musical, and the book of the musical was adapted by the film’s screenwriter, Patricia Resnick.
On a recent morning just before the show went into previews, Resnick, 55, interrupted her own busy day to meet with a reporter. Hardly a 9-to-5er herself, she had just dropped her daughter off for her first day of high school. After having a cup of green tea from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (“its good for losing weight,” she said), the single mother of three would soon head home to work on a new television pilot, then run errands, pick up her son from middle school at 3:30 p.m. and, after all that, head downtown to the Music Center to watch technical rehearsals for the new musical — which would last until midnight.
But Resnick is clearly enjoying the hectic schedule. She smiled when talking about “how fortunate” she is to work with “the nicest group of people. It’s an instant family.”
She said that although she doesn’t live the life of the typical office worker, her own politically conscious background made her a good fit for writing the feminist-activist message of the very funny film.
“I grew up very liberal, very left wing,” she said. Her father was an attorney and her mother a stay-at-home mom. “Some people play tennis with their family — we protested. Civil rights. The Vietnam War. Everything.”
Her involvement with “9 to 5” began in the late 1970s, when she read an article in trade papers that Fonda wanted to create a film that made a political statement about female office workers.
“I saw in Variety that Jane Fonda wanted to work with both Lily [Tomlin] and Dolly [Parton],” Resnick said. “At that point, I’d been working on Robert Altman’s ‘A Wedding,’ and I was doing a PBS teleplay called, ‘Ladies in Waiting.’ I called my agent and asked, ‘Can you find out if there’s a writer yet?'”
Resnick had some connections: Her first writing job was working on Tomlin’s one-woman show, “Appearing Nitely”; she also wrote a few sketches for Parton on a Cher special.
Fonda read some of Resnick’s work and brought her on board. After some discussion, they decided a politically themed movie would play out best as a comedy and took the idea to 20th Century Fox.
The film ended up grossing more than $103 million in the United States and spawning two TV series. (Ironically, the exterior scenes were shot at the Pacific Financial Center on West Sixth Street in downtown Los Angeles — just six blocks from the Ahmanson.)
Resnick said that the idea of turning the film into a musical was under discussion for a while, but a combination of forces, including funding, timing and assembling a creative team, kept it from coming together sooner.
The break came in 2003, when she met with Showtime Networks Entertainment President Bob Greenblatt about a television project. Resnick said that Greenblatt mentioned he was a huge fan of the film and wanted to mount a musical.
Getting Parton to write the music was essential, since her iconic title song, “9 to 5,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and country charts in 1981 and has charted as recently as 2004, reaching 78 on American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Songs.” According to Resnick, who said she loved working with Parton, the new role of lyricist fit the actress-singer well.
“Dolly did the most amazing job. She’s an incredible songwriter — who doesn’t get the recognition she deserves,” Resnick said. “She never had done any Broadway. The songs are so good and perfect for each character. They really stay in your head.”
Among the show’s songs is “Backwoods Barbie,” taken from Parton’s album of the same name. In the musical, it becomes a backstory song for Doralee: “I’m just a backwoods Barbie, too much makeup, too much hair. Don’t be fooled by thinkin’ that the goods are not all there. Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe that I’m as shallow as I look, ’cause I run true and deep.”
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to write a musical, and now I have the chance to not only make Doralee sing, but to bring all of Patricia’s wonderful characters to life on stage through music,” Parton said in the show’s press materials. She was not available for comment for this article.
Once Parton became involved, things began to fall into place.
The creative team decided not to change the setting — 1979, before the days of cell phones, Starbucks and the Internet.
“Bob and I talked about whether we should update it or not,” Resnick said. “There were such strong reasons to keep it in the original time. The whole harassment thing … not that it doesn’t go on now … is not as blatant as it was then.”
Resnick also collaborated with Parton on which parts of the movie should become songs.
“All the fantasies are production numbers,” Resnick said, referring to where each of the female leads daydreams about how they would “kill” Hart if they had the chance. In the film, Violet uses poison, Judy is a bounty hunter and Doralee ropes him like a steer. But the fantasies had to be tweaked, Resnick said, along with other scenes that worked well on screen but not on stage.
“At one rehearsal, something wasn’t working so they restaged, and I had to write some new lines,” she said. “The next day, they restaged again, and the lines were cut.”
Resnick’s other credits include such films as “Maxie” (starring Glenn Close) and “Straight Talk” (starring Parton). She acknowledged that she hasn’t previously had much experience in theater.
Working on “9 to 5: The Musical” was fun, she said, and it has changed the way she views the film version: “Now when I watch the movie, I hear song cues.”
She also said that working on the musical helped save her life, because she’s used it as a motivation to lose some weight. In what she calls “95 by ‘9 to 5,'” she hopes to lose 95 pounds by the show’s opening night. Through a combination of working with a trainer, running stairs at the theater and ordering food through Nutrifit, she said she is now within just 10 pounds of her goal.
In addition, the stage adaptation has given Resnick a chance to enhance the film’s story, including a love interest for Violet and expanding the backgrounds of some of the minor characters from the film.
“It seems that in a musical you would get to know people less — I actually think you get to know them more,” she noted.
Resnick, who grew up in Miami Beach, said her family always spent a lot of time at movies and the theater, and she loved writing from an early age. She describes her parents as “culinary Jews,” who went to temple twice a year.
“The rest of my family was in New York,” she said. “My parents’ friends were all Jewish. We all got together for the holidays, because no one really had family.”
Although her own children haven’t attended Hebrew school in a long time, Resnick said they absolutely identify as Jewish. Her three kids have sat in on rehearsals, she said, and are great fans of the new show. Between now and the planned Broadway opening in March, Resnick will be home in Los Angeles working in television again. Her next project is a computer-animated adaptation of “Olivia,” the Ian Falconer children’s book series about an adventurous pig, which is expected to air on Nickelodeon at the end of this year.
Despite the nearly three decades that have passed since the original film came out, Resnick sees much that relates to today’s workplace in the show’s story.
“Unfortunately, ‘9 to 5’ is very relevant. In the Fortune 500 there are eight female CEOs — and we’re 51 percent of the population,” she noted. “What I would love to happen is in 30 years for someone to say, ‘Lets revive it.’ And for someone else to say, ‘No one will relate to it.'”