Post-show Thoughts: 9 to 5 at Island ETC, Galveston, TX

On Friday night, I had the chance to see 9 to 5 at Island ETC, an amateur(?) theatre in Galveston, TX.

I really enjoyed the performance. I want to comment a little more at length, but first, here are the guidelines I've set out for this post and future posts.

  • I'm not going to comment on individual performances. I'm not sure I have the standing to criticize acting choices, strengths, or weaknesses. I'm not a professional critic, and I'd rather stay away from that territory at this point in my career. For the spots where I talk about the production, I'll keep it general.
  • Most of my comments will be a review of the material itself. The book and the music, and what I feel like their strengths and weaknesses are. I'll share what seem to me to be challenges of the show, as well as things I'd be excited to work on.

In full disclosure, I helped very briefly with auditions for this show, in the role of pianist for one night of the auditions. It was my interest in seeing how it came out that led me to decide to see it this weekend.

There are, of course, spoilers ahead.

The Performance Material

Script and Story

The musical "9 to 5" is adapted from the movie of the same title. The movie is of course intimately tied to Dolly Parton's song, which she wrote for the movie. Dolly Parton and Patricia Resnick worked together on the original film (along with Colin Higgins, according to Wikipedia) and they reunited for the stage adaptation.

For the musical, Parton wrote new original songs, as well as finding a place for at least one existing song of hers (Backwoods Barbie, sung by Doralee, the character Parton played in the movie). She later recorded several songs from the show on her 2011 album Better Day. The script was presumably reshaped, though I haven't seen the original movie, so I'm not entirely sure what changes were made.

One thing that I suspect is a holdover from the film is the structure of the show. Much of the show is made up of short scenes which may be punctuated by songs. Some scenes are simply a bit of dialogue followed by a transition to the next. There are also a number of one-off sets, such as the bathroom, the copy machine, or the hospital, both of which are used for short scenes and never seen again. This lack of thriftiness with sets strikes me as something that was probably held over from the movie, where it would be a trivial thing to include a 2 minute scene in a new location if you already had the whole office building.

This structure poses a challenge for the director, as it's difficult to make a bunch of set changes not look jittery and rushed, or make the audience wait in the dark for a few moments every couple of minutes. When working with limited space (this production was, see below), it takes careful planning.

The show feels a little unbalanced. The natural breaking point for the story is when the girls kidnap Hart, because it not only gives a dramatic end to the act, it's the most dramatic moment in the story. But so much setup happens in Act 1 that in Act 2 you realize the authors have kind of run out of ideas. Ultimately Act 2 consists of only a few scenes:

  • an extended musical number in which the ladies take over the office, instituting reforms that they feel will improve the workplace
  • A blooming romance between Violet and accountant Joe, who is also recruited to help prove Hart's embezzlement while he's tied up
  • A scene where Judy goes ballistic on her ex-husband ("Get out and Stay Out") and inadvertently allows Hart to break free from his bindings
  • A final confrontation in the office.

There's just not a lot going on here. The whole act runs between 30 and 40 minutes, while Act 1 is easily an hour and 40 minutes. The script also doesn't address any side plots developed in the first act, such as Violet's son or how exactly the women are taking care of their boss while he's tied up.

Plot developments in Act 2 are often elided into a song, or just referred to after happening offstage. The stakes of getting this solved before (1) Hart's wife returns from a cruise to find him tied up at home, or (2) Roz returns from a language immersion program to pester them for Hart's whereabouts, don't quite seem compelling.

Even the ending is a little forced. The boss's boss shows up to find out why the company has been performing so well, and Hart's attempt to throw Violet under the bus backfired and ends with him "promoted" to an office in Bolivia and Violet set up as CEO.

The ending is a total deus ex machina (see definition 2). But it provides an opportunity for Violet to sum up the message of the show in a short rant. Strangely, the rant seems to be more about the downtrodden middle class workers than about the plight of sexually harassed, underappreciated women, but it applies too.


I felt like the songs were solid overall, though a couple of them are a little rough around the edges. Some lines in "Shine Like the Sun" are a little too direct and not quite poetic enough to match the melodies they are sung to. The tunes are invariably hummable, though. Parton has always had a gift with a melody. Listen to Jolene (from 1973) and try not to be singing it for the next few hours.

Each of the three female leads gets at least one song to herself.

  • Doralee gets "Backwoods Barbie"
  • Judy gets "Get Out and Stay Out"
  • Violet gets "One of the Boys"

There are also featured solos for Roz, the boss's secretary (Heart to Hart) and the boss himself, Mr. Hart (Here for You). Most everything else is ensemble singing, plus the chorus sings backup in most of the solo numbers.

I wanted to comment for a second on the two songs sung by Roz and Mr. Hart. They are both unapologetically lustful, and aggressively sexual. It's a tough line for the actors to stride between raunchy and funny, and in the case of Mr. Hart (who is singing to the unaware Doralee onstage with him), it's a little awkward in the context of recent workplace sexual-harassment and the #metoo social movement. More on that below.

The other main character songs are easy to treat as park-and-bark numbers. Especially since in all three cases, the actress is left alone onstage. Violet's number is probably the easiest to avoid, since her backup singers are the guys, and in both productions I've seen, the guys act as backup dancers for her number.

But Doralee is alone onstage with the background vocals performed offstage. And Judy's song is a total solo, just her alone onstage with the orchestra.

On the subject of Judy's song, "Get Out and Stay Out", it doesn't work quite as well as I feel like it's meant to. The title line is meant to be a real cry of anger, and it's set high in the singer's voice. In both productions I've seen, the song sits right on the actress's break, which makes those cries particularly desperate. This is especially true after the last-verse key change, which takes the whole song a step higher.

The issue arises from the fact that the singer repeatedly hits those high notes in less extreme emotional stakes. So for a singer who's already pushed to her limits on those notes, to make them dramatically effective, it's hard to make that one phrase pop out, when she is again pushed up in every line of the chorus. (The highlighted words are all on the same note, approached by a big leap up in the melody)

So get out and stay out, I've finally had enough
Don't kiss me on your way out, it wouldn't move me much
You used me, abused me, you cheated and you lied
So get out and stay out, I'm taking back my life

She also sings in that same range throughout some of the verses. In an ideal world, there would be a way for the singer to lighten up in the verses so that the chorus really leaps out. As it is, the orchestra has to compensate to help the moment build.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, though, I feel like the show is a lot of frothy fun with a serious core. Nearly 40 years on from the original movie, there have been definite changes in the outward appearance of workplaces, with HR policies to prevent sexual harassment plus a general social trend toward disapproving of casual sexism, but with the #metoo movement gathering steam in the last year, it's clear that the mindsets dramatized in this show still exists in some corners of the world.

I'd be curious if anyone knows of a production of this show that tries to address any of that, or if the material is just treated as froth, to be acknowledged and laughed at at by audiences. I think the latter is a valid approach and true to the period that produced it. But perhaps there are other, more engaging approaches in this day and age.

In a world where operas are regularly being reimagined to take on the sexist assumptions that are at their hearts, and where all forms of theatre are coping with the modern sexual and racial dynamics of the world [citation needed, but I've been hearing about this anecdotally for sure], this show seems ripe for that kind of production.

A Few Comments on This Production

I went on for far too long about the show itself, but here are a few things I thought were notable about this particular production.

Staging and Dance

The theatre space is in an old warehouse, which means the stage doesn't have any side entrances. For this show, they built a sold back wall with three entrances and made the whole set look like the office. The rare scenes that occurred outside the office were effectively staged in front of this. Though they were mostly confined to the central area that didn't have any desks, it worked out visually.

As I noted earlier, the transitions felt a little jarring, mostly because they generally involved sitting in the darkness for a few seconds while the actors and sets moved around. This is an interesting change from the trend I've seen of choreographing set changes under the lights. But for this show, where some set changes take as long as the shorter scenes, it felt a little rough.

I was impressed with the choreography, which was active and expressive without relying too much on dance skills. This show is hard enough to cast without requiring extensive dance experience on top of the appropriate look and voice, so it was nice to see effective choreography that made the actors look good doing it.

And finally, the music.

One thing that I was interested to see was how effective the live band was. There's an ongoing discussion of the merits of hiring live musicians vs. prerecorded tracks in community theatre, and this show gave some good credit on the side of live musicians. There's an immediacy, especially to the drums and bass, that I haven't yet found a sound system to replicate. The drums are visceral in a unique way, and the "sexy" bass lines and growling saxophone felt right.

The orchestra was behind the actors, and I didn't get a chance to ask the Music Director how they heard the performers, or if there was any monitor situation going from front to back or back to front. It seemed to me the actors were mostly listening, but I'm not entirely sure.

The actors were not amplified, which I found really fascinating. In a space this size and shape, they were more than able to project to the back without sounding like they were pushing. In addition, in what was maybe my favorite quality, the show didn't feel over-amplified. This is one of my biggest pet peeves, and it's a situation that many amateur and professional theatres fall into.

I was in the back row, under the balcony, and the balance was quite good, with one exception: several times, a soloist would drop down into her low range, and the background singers would be singing as well, and you'd totally lose the singer for a moment. But that's a peril of an acoustic show. 

I'm glad I got to see this show. It was a fun experience and gave me plenty to think about. I'm looking forward to seeing more shows this fall and to thinking deeply about them. Please let me know what you think of this post!

Last Week of Summer Vacation

What am I going to do with my last week before inservice begins?

  • Practice piano (I have a lesson on Thursday)
  • Rehearsals for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (click the link to get tickets!)
  • Meet with other organizers of The Woodlands Chamber Music Project to discuss our future.
  • Clean up my apartment one last time
  • See a new show or art experience
  • Return library books
  • Try to consciously Sharpen the Saw

I guess it's going to be a busy one. Anyone have exciting plans for this week?

What I'm Reading

  • Still working my way through Drew McManus's blog archives over at Adaptistration. I'm in March of 2012 as I write this. Fortunately it seems he's taken a short hiatus until next Monday so maybe I'll catch up by then!
  • The Nantucket Diary of Ned Rorem. I haven't spent much time listening to Rorem's music (I will be checking out some scores when I go to the library tomorrow), but his writing is a pleasure to read. This particular book is more tinged with melancholy than previous ones, as it chronicles his advancing age.

Paying My Dues

One thing that regularly gnaws at me is envy. I'm sure this is not unusual, but it's the topic of what I want to write today.

I know I'm not the only person who sees other people's lives or accomplishments or celebrations on Facebook (weddings, awards, graduations, etc.) and feels a little inadequate. "Why don't I have anything like that going on?"

It's all well and good to be reminded that social media isn't real life but it is a kind of real life. Most people don't completely make stuff up on social media. What we do on social media is selectively reveal what we want to. For example, I've had a policy for years of only posting when I had something positive to say.

But I wanted to take a moment to complain to remind myself of common sense.

The thing that all of my successful friends have in common is that they put in work. When someone builds a successful business, it's because she put in hours behind the scenes. Someone who receives a great professional honor has worked hard to achieve that. We don't see the time and hours behind the scenes, unless we're looking carefully. But I know enough about these people to know that they deserve their success.

Me? Well, I'm sitting on my couch typing this up instead. I spent more time playing with Google Drawings yesterday morning than I did practicing piano all last week.

No lasting success comes without work. I realize this in some parts of my life. I get that if my choir is going to be successful in April, we have to start working toward it in August. I get that if The Woodlands Chamber Music Project is going to grow, it will take work to reach out to the audience and to maintain correct records, etc. I know the singing on a musical I'm working on will take teaching and reteaching to be solid.

Where I can't seem to get it through my head is in the realm of personal development. I have lots of things I'd like to improve about myself, whether it's developing positive habits, learning new skills, or improving existing ones. I'd love to be a highly accomplished pianist, a master conductor, in shape, and with a consistent social life and professional reputation.

But when the time comes to work on those things, I balk. Rather than stepping forward into the challenge, I back off. Not from fear, but from lack of discipline. I want to be good, but I don't want to put in the work to get there. I'd rather skim Facebook for the dozenth time today than read a real book. I'd rather watch TV than go to the gym. I'd rather wander into my bedroom and read until I pass out at night than prepare myself for the next day. I'd rather sit on my couch and text friends than go out and try to meet new people.

If I want success, it's a matter of actually doing the thing. Regardless of whether I pick the best place to start, something is better than nothing, and that's where I am right now.

So now that I've talked myself into this, it's time to get some work done. I don't want to go to bed tonight with nothing to show for the day. And that should be true of every day.

Current Events

After writing for three days consistently, I'm starting to get a nice streak of writing posted here. I want to keep up posting daily for as long as possible. That inevitably means that posts like yesterday's meditation on connections aren't going to be possible daily.

So I figured I'd take today to briefly talk more practically about what I'm spending my time on and what I am pursuing these days.

Back to School

I have about a week and a half before I go back to school. This year, I will have my piano classes separated from each other, plus we are adding after-school rehearsal expectations once per week for the choir. So I'll be getting used to a slightly different work schedule than I've had in the past.

My piano classes will be more structured and more hands-on. I think I've pretty well decided what I want the focus of the class to be, and I'm really excited to begin implementing them.

Piano Work

I've spent a lot of time the last few days exploring new piano repertoire. I'm preparing for a college audition in the fall, so that is at the top of my list. In addition, I want to broaden my horizons in playing accompaniments for both classical and musical theatre styles.

To that end, I'm paging through my various songbooks, piano collections, and vocal scores. I'm discovering different pieces that I'm interested in playing, and finding more of them are approachable than I expected. I hope to post some videos at some point.

Experiencing the Arts

Since I got back from my vacation, I have been thinking more about how little time I spend absorbing artistic material. I spend all of my time working and directing, instead. I want to find an audience for my own work, but that also means I need to have an audience mindset sometimes. Plus I get to meet other artists and performers.

My plan going forward is to try to experience some new artistic work every week from here to the end of the year. Last week I saw a community theatre musical, this week I intend to go to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston for their free admission night. I also want to attend musical performances with venues such as Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Symphony. Watch for reviews and reflections here.

Reflecting and Writing

On the subject of reflecting, I intend to post at least a short post here every day, as a way of focusing my thoughts and reflecting on my experience. I want to improve my writing style, and record my experiences and perspectives. I want to engage with my readers.

To that end, I hope to actually incorporate pictures and video into these posts as well as words.

And finally,

The Woodlands Chamber Music Project

After an intense, but productive board meeting, I am excited to say that we have made the decision to forge ahead with The Woodlands Chamber Music Project. We will continue our monthly performance series, and we will incorporate as a legal nonprofit entity. I will post more information as it develops

Thank you as always to my friends and family for your support, and stay tuned for further developments!