The movie “9 to 5” was released over a decade before most of the theater students at Viterbo University were even born, but while the costumes are dated, the themes of feminism, sexism and workplace disparity remain timely.
The classic film, released in 1980, is an ode to female friendships and empowerment, and next weekend Viterbo students will bring the story to the stage with “9 to 5 the Musical,” a Broadway favorite with original songs by Dolly Parton and centered on the characters of perceived floozy Doralee, ambitious but underestimated Violet and new to the workforce Judy, portrayed in the film by Parton, Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, respectively.
The musical features 18 songs and is based on the film’s script, which follows the three women through workplace tribulations, revenge and ultimately redemption. Employed at Consolidated Industries, the women must contend with sexist boss Franklin Hart, being passed over for promotions, tumultuous relationships and catty co-workers. They unite over their shared hatred for Hart, swapping revenge fantasies, and when he blackmails them over an accident, the women kidnap him and hold him hostage in his own home while taking over the office. From there the musical takes a few twists, and audiences will likely be cheering at the conclusion.
“What I love about this show is it shows women have the capability and ability to handle any job in the workplace,” said director Matt Campbell. “It’s really satisfying to see them go from underdogs to champions.”
Campbell describes the show as nostalgic, in both good and bad ways, with the actors dressed in authentic clothing from the late 1970’s and playing homage to characters alive before their time. The cast was intrigued by the now-rare typewriters and Xerox machines on set and crazy patterns and retro cuts of their ensembles. The sets, which include the office “bull pen,” and Hart’s office and bedroom, were designed to help immerse the audience in the story.
“There are lots of exciting little tricks and fun things the set does,” Campbell said, noting at one point Hart actually flies over the stage. “The fantasy sequences have a lot of theatrical elements.”
Campbell believes the show is universally engaging, and older audience members will likely recognize the misogyny of the 1980’s workplace, while younger audiences might be miffed by what was once tolerated behavior by authority figures yet see parallels to the modern office environment.
“A lot has gotten better but we still deal with (workplace sexism) every day,” said Viterbo musical theater junior Sierra Glosson, who plays Doralee. “Time has gone by but there is still a lot of work to do and push through as a society. That’s something we’re trying to actively portray that hopefully the audience will pick up and take away from the show.”
Glosson, a diehard Dolly Parton fan, relishes her role as Doralee, whose provocative style of dress was out of her comfort zone but whose struggles with preconceptions she relates to.
“People make judgements about who you are and where you’re from. ... I relate with that,” said Glosson, a Tennessee native. “She is very misunderstood at the beginning. ... (Her co-workers) think she’s having an affair with the boss. Everyone judges her and talks behind her back but at the end people begin to see her for who she is. It’s a really good character arc.”
Campbell helped Glosson capture the soul of Parton’s Doralee without making it an imitation, and Dolly herself appears via projection in the last scene, singing along with the cast.
“It makes me so happy to sing her songs,” said Glosson, who’s favorites include “Backwoods Barbie” and “Shine Like the Sun.”
“It’s the turning point when the three women take control and tie him up,” Glosson said of the latter.
“It’s really just a beautiful moment where the women — who are maybe not doing the best thing — really reclaim their rights,” Campbell agreed. “I’m so enraptured with this idea of growth and change. To say I agree with their actions is a little harsh but I agree with their essence.”
Many of the musical numbers are challenging, with four- or five-part harmonies, but Campbell appreciates the tender simplicity of “Let Love Grow,” sung between Violet and office accountant Joe at a rare moment when the action slows down and strong-willed Violet has a chance to show her vulnerable side.
“9 to 5” celebrates the many facets and many faces of the working woman, and imparts a bit of encouragement in the lyrics of its eponymous closing number: “Want to move ahead, And now that I can do it, Better get my rear in gear and get right to it.”