Girl Power Comes to Broadway
Dolly Parton’s musical adaptation 9 to 5 is an over-the-top female celebration for a new generation of working women.
When Nine to Five premiered in 1980, it became the second-highest-grossing film of the year. The timely comedy brought in hordes of women giddy to see three bonafide stars (Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton, making her movie debut) exact the ultimate working girl’s revenge: The secretaries of a major corporation kidnap the chauvinistic boss, send female-friendly memos out in his name, and then blackmail him for all he has. For office-dronettes at the time, the movie presented supreme wish-fulfillment; with disparities in pay, open sexual harassment, and a glass ceiling so low one could hit her elbow on it, it was not impossible for a woman to fantasize about hoodwinking the boss—harming him, even—and stepping into his shoes.
It’s a female Barnum & Bailey, a blowsy love-in, a double-D bra-burning rally—and incredible fun.
Of course, the over-the-top antics of the movie seem outdated today, like camp chick-lit hijinks rather than actual girl-power plays. And critics (including the almighty Pauline Kael) noted that it perhaps did more hurt for women than good—the jokes often come at the expense of the exasperated trio, watching them bend over and bobble along as they try to escape their convoluted bind. Kael went so far as to argue that Parton’s famous gunpoint line, “I can change you from a rooster to a hen with one shot!” was factually inaccurate (it should be from a rooster to a capon) and undermined all of the respect that the secretaries were fighting for in the first place.
Watch the 9 to 5 Trailer
Still, women loved the film, and I imagine that will be the case with the Broadway musical version, 9 to 5, which opened last night at the Marquis Theater. With music and lyrics by Parton and a book by Nine to Five’s original screenwriter Patricia Resnick, this is a production for women, by women (a very rare thing on Broadway)—meant to invigorate, excite, and wink coyly at the females in the audience. And this time they won’t have to experience it in the polite silence of a dark film house. Instead, 9 to 5 is loud and bawdy, with several “you-go-girl!” style numbers—a woman bathing in a single spotlight, belting about her freedom from hegemony, the pain of work/life balance, and the desire to be rid of the “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigots” at the top. Where ‘80s filmgoers enjoyed slapstick scheming against the man, Broadway audiences are treated to an additional catharsis in the form of singing, tapping, Crayola-box costumes by William Ivey Long, and a magically elaborate set by Scott Pask. It’s a female Barnum & Bailey, a blowsy love-in, a double-D bra-burning rally—and incredible fun.
The show has already earned 15 Drama Desk nominations—a record number—and will likely score several Tony nominations on Tuesday; though women are often represented in the theater and given its greatest roles (Mama Rose, Anita, Mimi, Eva Peron), rare is the musical that speaks directly into their ears. Even the current feel-good (and lauded) revival of Hair portrays its females as boy-crazy, hung up on jerks, and lovedrunk on Aquarian folly. 9 to 5 storms in with an unapologetic country-twang and push-up corset, citrus bright and all about the girls. It’s not until we meet the evil boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (memorably played by Dabney Colman in the film and by a devilish Marc Kudish on stage), two numbers in that the audience gets a male character that is more than an accessory. Under Joe Mantello’s thoughtful direction, every song and choreographed move is in the service of making the three leading ladies look good—and how many other shows can claim that?
The three main characters in 9 to 5 all represent different sides of the feminine id, at least as it existed in 1979. Doralee (Parton’s character from the movie now played charmingly by Dollyganger Megan Hilty, who by either nature or stealth costuming is similarly blessed with Parton’s aggressive hourglass and pile of blond curls), is our backwoods Barbie, dressing provocatively to attract attention, but surprised when she is pawed by her boss and labeled a floozy by her coworkers. Judy (once Jane Fonda, now Stephanie J. Block) is the mousy housewife dumped for a secretary and forced to enter the working world. And Violet is the confident office marm (played with a droll comic effect by both Tomlin on screen and now by The West Wing’s Allison Janney), who has been passed over several times for a management promotion. You’ve got the brainy bimbo, clueless divorcee, and yearning, ambitious widow, all battling it out against each other to stay afloat and earn notice in a male-dominated space.
One wishes that these archetypes seemed more quaint than they are. The show should feel as if it is set 30 years ago, and yet, just as Mad Men’s 1960s nostalgia brings up feelings of gender struggle in our own culture, 9 to 5 doesn’t feel like a dusty relic. Sure, there are jokes about typewriters and slow Xerox machines, and the women are in pantyhose, but the characters’ basic struggles feel unfortunately fresh. Though a modern-day feminist might argue that the Doralee conundrum—how to dress like a sexpot without being labeled a tart—might be easily solved by a conservative change of clothes, her desire to be fully herself without being judged is still a relevant one. Judy’s innocent I’ve-never-worked-before pout is antiquated, but her amazing torch song (“Get Out and Stay Out”) in the second act is not. As Judy pushes away her abusive ex-husband and steps into the light to sing about never again being hurt by a man, one gets the urgent sense that all girls should be watching this, especially in a world where domestic violence still makes tabloid news.
Perhaps the most accessible plotline, though, belongs to Janney’s Violet, who dreams of gaining the professional upper hand in a man’s world. Janney gets the showstopper—“One of the Boys”—a cabaret-style number where she imagines herself CEO in a white power suit, men dancing around her in glittery pinstripe and handing her a plump cigar. Though the idea of wanting to be a man feels like something we should be past—isn’t the result of our mothers’ work the reclamation of our femininity; that we should no longer feel like we have to become the boys to eclipse them?—Violet’s yearning to be taken seriously for her intelligence does not seem outdated. Watching 9 to 5, at least as a career-minded woman, you are reminded that for every glass ceiling women break through, there may still be one more left to go. We came close to a female presidential candidate last year—and to a female vice president—but also, we fixated as a nation on those women’s cellulite and sex appeal. We have a powerful woman in the White House now, but we can’t stop gossiping about Michelle Obama’s Alaia belts and kitten heels.
Watching 9 to 5, at least as a career-minded woman, you are reminded that for every glass ceiling women break through, there may still be one more left to go.
It’s not that American women haven’t come far since 1979; we have ditched the hose and run companies, and girls today are brought up with a sense of agency and empowerment that previous generations never were. We know better than to bind and gag our bosses to get our way; not because we can’t, but because we simply aren’t desperate to do it. But something about the caper, and the women’s joyful response to it, both in song and in word, is still thrilling. You want to cheer these women on, see them fight the power and take what they deserve—and afterward, you want the same for yourself.
Perhaps the best parts of 9 to 5 come when the three women are singing together, clasping each other at the waist as if skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. Once antagonistic in the office, the crime (and a fat joint) bonds the women, and though there are many opportunities to do so, they never abandon each other to get ahead. They are a unit, concocting their innovative memos about job-sharing and child-care together, but also prepared to take the fall as a threesome, together.
What Parton has written, then, with songs like “Joy to the Girls” and “Change It”—emancipation hymns in three-part harmony—is a rollicking sermon not only to womanhood but sisterhood. Parton is a woman who has taken a lot of heat from her peers for her Tinseltown outfits and exposed cleavage (“It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” she’s famously quipped), so it makes her message all the more poignant; women will get there a lot faster if we do it as a team. It’s almost reductively earnest, but true: Women still have a lot to learn about looking out for each other, inside the workplace and out. And if 9 to 5, as campy and boisterous as it is, can spread that idea to women young and old (without inspiring them to hogtie their superiors), then it will have done its job.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.