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.
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!