When “9 to 5” – a movie about women trying to be taken seriously in the corporate workforce – became the second-highest-grossing flick of 1980, women made only 62 percent of men’s wages, and only two women (including Kansas’ own Nancy Landon Kassebaum) were in the 100-seat U.S. Senate.
Thirty years later, when the movie was turned into a Broadway stage musical that snagged more Drama Desk nominations – 15 – than any previous musical, women commanded about 81 percent of a man’s salary and 17 women were serving in the Senate.
That’s progress, of course, but the comic and poignant struggles of Violet, Doralee and Judy against a pig-headed chauvinist of a boss are still an all-too-relevant reality, says Music Theatre of Wichita producing artistic director Wayne Bryan. “9 to 5” opens Wednesday as the second show of MTW’s 41st season, and it’s one of two fresh-from-Broadway musicals making their premieres here this season.
The show, which won’t open in London until this fall, was adapted by Patricia Resnick from her original 1980 movie script. Dolly Parton, who wrote the movie’s title tune that became a chart-topping, Oscar-nominated blue-collar anthem way back then, wrote 15 additional songs for the 2009 Broadway stage version.
Parton also became a pop culture icon through her movie debut as naively sexy, down-home secretary Doralee alongside dour Lily Tomlin as workaholic single mom Violet and deer-in-the-headlights Jane Fonda as inept workplace newbie Judy. Dabney Coleman played their autocratic, egotistical nightmare of a boss who also felt entitled to pinch, pat and grope.
For this Wichita premiere, Paula Leggett Chase is long-suffering Violet, Jennie Barber is good ol’ gal Doralee and Darcie Roberts is skittish Judy, with Damon Kirsche as their sneering, leering boss, Franklin Hart Jr. The story deals with the three fed-up women plotting exquisite revenge on their common tormentor.
“Violet is a strong, driven person – a widow and single mom with a teenaged son. She has kindness and patience, but she doesn’t have patience for fools,” says Chase, a Broadway veteran (“A Chorus Line,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) who was last seen here two years ago in “Curtains.”
“She is efficient and very fair. She has a great sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. She is frustrated that the man she trained was promoted over her as boss. At least, she has a quirky sense of humor to help her survive,” Chase says. “I identify with Violet through my own mother, who was a widow left to raise a child by herself. I don’t worry about trying to be like Lily Tomlin in the movie. But I do ‘get’ Lily, I understand her. People tell me every now and then that something I’ll do is ‘so Lily,’ so there must be some subconscious connection.”
For Barber, playing Doralee simply has to be a lot like Dolly Parton’s original because the singer/songwriter – famous for her big hair and big bosom – created the character very much in her own colorful, playful, straight-talking mold.
“Dolly put a strong imprint on Doralee. But I’m playing Doralee, not Dolly. She’s very feminine and likes lots of glamour. What she chooses to wear may not always seem office-appropriate, but she is almost innocently unaware of her sexuality. And, of course, there is that famous voice,” Barber says with a laugh, lapsing into the gentle, Tennessee-flavored accent she’ll be using in the show. “It’s like doing a British accent. You find your little phrases to get the right sound, then use them to somersault into the whole dialogue.”
Barber, who was on Broadway in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” is a veteran of three summers in the MTW ensemble who is back for the first time as a guest artist.
“Doralee is so genuine. She says what she believes. She’s a happily married woman with a strong sense of justice. She is a people pleaser but she won’t put up with any messing around,” Barber says. “The key to Doralee is that she knows she is underestimated because of her looks.”
“Poor Judy, the office newcomer, is strong, too, but she just doesn’t know it yet,” says Roberts, a veteran of Broadway (“Aida,” “Crazy for You”) and national tours (“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”). Roberts debuted with MTW as a 15-year-old in “A Chorus Line” and has been a frequent guest star ever since (“Gigi,” “My Fair Lady,” most recently “Curtains”).
“Her cheating husband left her for a 19-year-old and she had to find a job to survive. She’s clearly out of place in the workplace and has the longest journey of any of the three to find her strength. I can’t relate to her feeling of insecurity personally, because I’ve been happily married for 15 years to my best friend. But I can identify with her nervousness of being in a new situation, a new environment, because, as an actress, that’s what I do for each new role.”
Determined to be the best worst boss in the world or, as he describes it, “the whipping boy for feminist rage and empowerment,” is Damon Kirsche, a Juilliard-trained singer who has concertized from New York’s Carnegie Hall to Los Angeles’ new Walt Disney Concert Hall. He is best remembered here for his unconventionally youthful takes on King Arthur in “Camelot” and Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady.”
“I love to play doltish characters like Franklin Hart Jr. because they are cartoony, broad and silly. Villains are great fun,” Kirsche says with a laugh. “Of course, he doesn’t think of himself as a villain. He just feels entitled. He has power and money, booze and cigars, and a pretty secretary to chase around his desk. He can be charming, but underneath, he’s pretty loathsome because he’s so full of himself.”
Kirsche says he is patterning his portrayal not so much after Dabney Coleman as after a real-life boss he had while working at a New York bank near Wall Street.
“He wasn’t as patronizing and unkind to women as my character,” Kirsche says, “but he was an idiot who clearly didn’t deserve his position. You wonder how he ever got it – why he kept it. In real life, that’s terrible, but on stage he’s a lot of fun.”
Husband-and-wife choreography team Lyndy Franklin Smith and Jeromy Smith, who whipped up last season’s spirited “Finian’s Rainbow,” are creating exuberant, highly athletic movements for several big production numbers involving up to 26 dancers. Costumes harking back to the show’s early-1980s period are by Shannon Smith, a Wichita State grad who recently completed an internship in New York with “Anything Goes.”
Music director Thomas W. Douglas, a faculty member at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University now in his 13th season with MTW, will conduct a pit orchestra of 12 players. Set design is by Robert A. Kovach, with lights by David Neville and sound by David Muehl. Director is Mark Madama from the University of Michigan, who is marking his 24th season and 40th show with MTW.