“9 to 5: The Musical” an Exuberant Office Revenge Fantasy

"9 to 5: The Musical" image courtesy of Cadence Canada Magazine

"9 to 5: The Musical" image courtesy of Cadence Canada Magazine

Long before the idea of a female US president was no more than a few votes away; long before the head of Pepsico was a woman; and long before Business Executive Barbie, there was 9 to 5, the movie that helped change workplace attitudes — especially towards women.

The premise is simple: three secretaries at a big corporation, sick of being passed over for their male counterparts, plot delightfully elaborate revenge fantasies against their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss, Franklin Hart Jr. But when things go awry and the opportunity falls into their laps to realize their dreams of revenge, the three women snap it up, and along the way collaborate to run their workplace a lot more successfully, creating an atmosphere conducive to women, not to mention meeting the work-life balance needs of all the other employees.

For a generation so used to seeing women in power, the idea that a woman could only rise as high as secretary in a corporation is great comedy. But then, so is 9 to 5: The Musical. Based on the hit 1980 comedy film starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin as three overworked and underpaid secretaries at the Consolidated Corporation, 9 to 5: The Musical takes all of the biting wit, acerbic humour, and wry charm of the original movie, and throws in a magnificent, Tony- and Grammy-nominated score written by one of the film’s original stars, Dolly Parton.

The stage adaptation features Dee Hoty as frustrated office manager Violet Newstead, Mamie Parris as naïve and recently-divorced workplace newbie Judy Bernly, and Diana DeGarmo as happily-married Texan and secretary to the boss, Doralee Rhodes, in the role made famous by Dolly Parton. The music legend herself made an appearance at the opening night performance on June 29 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, via a recorded video feed projected onto a large clock symbolically spinning the hours in the background from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and all around again.

Parton begins the story by introducing the memorable characters Judy, Violet, and Doralee, who represent the many women whose immeasurable contributions changed workplace culture for generations to come. The original movie, which like the stage adaptation is set in the “old boys’ club” corporate culture of the ’60s and ’70s, was an inspiration to many, and workplace innovations like daycare programs, health and fitness credits, and employee training programs were greatly inspired by these women as depicted in 9 to 5.

The opening night audience actually appeared to be mainly women — many of them of an age to have potentially seen the original movie the play is based on, but there were also a lot of recent grads in the audience, in what seemed to be some sort of group outing. It’s an apt metaphor for how far things have come since the movie came out in 1979. Young women leaving school now can now take it for granted that they could work their way up to CEO, not just of one, but perhaps several companies in their careers, and enjoy many benefits along the way that in 1979 were merely deluded fantasies.

This Dancap production of the Broadway hit features stellar singing performances from all of the talented cast, including an exceptional solo from Mamie Parris as Judy Bernly. It also features ingenious set design, with chameleon-like lighting reflecting the inner turmoil of characters on stage, where rolling props form constantly evolving backdrops. These transform scenes within moments from a triptych with the three main protagonists in their respective locations, to a single office setting with typewriters clattering on desks and phones ringing off the hook, to parking garages and bedrooms.

The rolling props also help mimic the movement of camera shot angles, such as the revolving wall in the bedroom scene featuring Judy, her ex-husband Dick (played by Wayne Schroder) and her boss Franklin Hart Jr (Joseph Mahowald) in a harness hoisted up via a garage door opener.

Don’t ask — just go see it.

9 to 5: The Musical is an exuberant, feel-good comedy, “cute and entertaining,” as one theatre goer mentioned while the crowd shuffled out after the thunderous applause died down. But it is also a paean to female solidarity in the workplace, to determination that breaks barriers, and to the ripple effect that happens when dreams are allowed to grow and take flight.