9 TO 5: The Musical

Book by Patricia Resnick
Music and Lyrics by Dolly Parton
Directed by Joe Mantello
Based on the film, story by Patricia Resnick,
screenplay by Colin Higgins and Patricia Resnick
Starring Stepanie J. Block, Allison Janney,
Megan Hilty and Marc Kudisch
Marquis Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

I never actually saw the movie of 9 to 5 until the day before I saw the musical, and knowing my exposure would be timed thus, it was an experience I  whimsically “prepped” for by first reading the paperback novelization of the Colin Higgins/Patricia Resnick screenplay by Thom Racina (Bantam Books, 1980; I’d bought my copy new, when first published, but a quick Google reveals a seemingly endless supply of used copies out there, for those curious). I opted for both because I wanted to know the material as much as possible on the page as well as on the screen.

                  I found both experiences to be middling, and the novel ironic in that the editor had chosen to commission a male writer rather than a female, considering the plot of the semi-farcical comedy: three women at different professional levels in a corporation—a newcomer, a secretary and an executive—rebel against the abuses of an insensitive, chauvinistic, sexually harassing boss.

                  But I was not ultimately surprised. Though the story is credited to Resnick alone, Colin Higgins, the screenplay’s co-author and director, was clearly the muscle of the project. And Mr. Higgins, in a brief but memorable career (his was an early AIDS death), specialized in films that each, overtly or tacitly, carried with it some kind of audience-friendly socio-political statement, that made huge impact in its era; he had an uncanny knack for tapping into the populist zeitgeist. The May-December romance Harold and Maude was his (he wrote his own novelization of that one), as well as the semi-comic thrillers, Foul Play and Silver Streak (novelizations by his life partner, James Cass Rogers), the latter of which heralded the first teaming of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, in a manner that, because of Pryor’s unabashed “streetwise bruthuh” approach, seemed to re-introduce the notion of mixed ethnicity partners—despite the way having been paved much more artfully with the grounbreaking 60s series that defined the buddy genre, I Spy (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby); and exploited in trippier mod-pop style with the pair of late 60s Salt & Pepper comedy thrillers (Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford), scripted by Brit writer Michael Pertwee (brother of third Doctor Who portrayer, Jon).

                  9 to 5 was right up his alley: It promoted Women’s Lib, Equal Pay for Equal Work, Respect in the Workplace, a whole bunch of issues whose goals (perhaps) were controversial when the story was first conceived, but that, by the time the film hit the screens, had already become inevitable. Like most everything else scripted by Mr. Higgins, it had the knack of seeming renegade while reinforcing mainstream liberal sympathies. (I hasten to add, I don’t say that as a put-down. It’s what he did and he did it with astonishingly consistent success.)


                  Virtually none of those films has withstood the test of time (though Harold and Maude still has a cult following). All were properly aimed bullets, in their collective era, but in the harsh light of retrospect they seem tame and even heavy-handed.

                  And 9 to 5 is no exception. What people remember most is that Dolly Parton title song—and arguably the trio of revenge fantasies as our marijuana-enhanced heroines (played by the aforementioned Ms. Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) elaborated on how they’d finish off the boss (Dabney Coleman). Weirdly, the mere existence of the film symbolizes something of great social significance; but the film itself is hardly iconic—not in the manner of other film comedies that have found their franchised way (for good or ill) to musicalization, such as The Producers, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Young Frankenstein; movies that continued making their impact upon future generations who would cherish one sequence after another and memorize lines so thoroughly as to make them catch-phrases. 9 to 5 was never that good, never that inspired and never that funny.

                  But—and here’s the point of my long preamble—the new musical adaptation of it at the Marquis theatre treats it as if it is. Surviving co-scenarist Patricia Resnick has wrought some clever and efficient compression in converting it to a libretto, yet hasn’t sufficiently elevated the whole above its essential mediocrity. (She’s even added some; with 9 to 5 natively bereft of the romance that all light musicals seem to need, she’s invented a younger man at the office to take interest in the single-mom executive. At least the lead trio and the boss are drawn so broadly that they give their actors room to camouflage their archetypal and schematic functions. But poor Andy Karl, charming and talented, is stuck having to play the message he carries, i.e. open yourself up to 2nd love because there are nice guys Out There.) The compression of the book is often as clumsy as clever, in honoring the film: for example, the musicalization of the aforementioned revenge-fantasy trio sequence is delivered in a weird shorthand—the first fantasy is announced, when the newbie says, more or less “Here’s what I’d do…” and as her highly danced fantasy ends, the next one begins without segue or preamble, such that anyone new to the material would find themselves unable to follow the perspective shift, as we enter the head of another character—except by way of delayed catch-up: Right around the third fantasy beginning you start to get it; but in a musical—actually almost any kind of theatre telling a linear story but especially a musical—those periods of disorientation are death. (I checked this supposition with a number of people who saw the musical with no previous exposure to the original film. All of them were confused.) None of the show would have been rendered thus if the creative team weren’t assuming a large degree of audience familiarity with the movie. (Say what one will about the Mel Brooks musicals, he and his compatriots were very mindful of both meeting fan expectations and orienting newcomers.)

                  The score—of course—is by Dolly Parton, as if one pop song title hit qualified her to be a musical dramatist. In an interview she said she was willing to try because she “knew the characters like the back of [her] hand,” but in truth, she doesn’t, not as a writer. She sort of knows how to comment on what they represent (this is often what moonlighting pop writers do in the theatre; they kind of regurgitate what we already know—rather than absorb high points, dramatize via song and provide genuine insight), and her tunes are nicely hummy, if only generically or pastiche-ily relevant to mood; but her lyrics are hopeless in terms of capturing diction (surprisingly, for a musician with as good an ear as she has, she seems oblivious to the notion that “hillbilly vowels,” which she often uses to grab at rhymes, don’t belong in the mouths of urban characters), and speaking of rhyme—oh, God, let’s not even talk about it. Let’s just say the lapses make the pop liberties of Spring Awakening seem like Noël Coward trunk songs. Though to be fair, here’s yet another irony: In the dark night of my soul I truly believe that if someone high up, involved with the show, had simply had the craft awareness to tell Ms. Parton that perfect rhyme was part of the musical theatre tradition, and pointed out where the hillbilly sound was incongruous to the task (except where it applies to the country girl secretary role she played in the film), she’d’ve said, “Well, alrighty then,” and adjusted. She strikes me as that game and that open-minded. It wouldn’t by any stretch have made her a savvier dramatist per se…but it would have tightened up the verbal sound, allowed the songs to land with more punch, and be more actor friendly (many are the moments where the mis-rhyme is so egregious as to leave the actor exposed in the spotlight as an expected laugh doesn’t come, because the prepared-for, “promised” rhyme is never delivered). And it would have made everything sound exponentially better than it does—and indeed than it is. A little tidiness goes a long way, in musical theatre.

                  Director Joe Mantello has helmed everything with his usual eye for detail and ability to corral a complicated enterprise so that it moves like clockwork, with on-target performances to match…you only wish he’d been as exacting with the actual material.

                  The casting too, is spot on: Stephanie J. Block adorably wide-eyed as the newbie; Allison Janney appropriately channeling her West Wing C.J. Craig persona as the overlooked exec; and Megan Hilty  pretty much “doing Dolly,” with vocals to match: which is precisely what the audience wants and expects. And for most of us in the NY circle, if you’d’ve said, “Okay, close your eyes, answer quick and don’t think: who would you get for the abusive boss Dabney Coleman played in the film,” I daresay the reflexive answer would’ve been Marc Kudisch. He just has that mojo, and does the corporate scumwad proud.

                  All this said, there seems to be a great deal of general-audience satisfaction with 9 to 5, despite a significant degree of theatre community—well, I won’t say dismissiveness, that’s not quite true, I don’t smell any animosity or resentment, but, call it “underwhelm.” And I have to say, I think that’s about the tourist trade, and what is for them the allure of the trademarks (the film’s title, the title song and Ms. Parton herself), their expectations met, and a certain satisfaction in the “big Broadwayness” of the package. And I can’t put that down: if good people are having a good time, who am I to deny the validity of their experience?

                  But that experience exists side by side with the more demanding standard that, I have to assume, most of you reading these words will share. Who want going to a musical to mean more than just…you know…a day at the office…

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