Office Space: EMU’s “9 to 5: The Musical” Pays Homage to the Comedy Film and Celebrates Female Empowerment
The era of landline phones, typewriters, and carbon copies returns for Eastern Michigan University’s Department of Communication, Media & Theatre Arts production of 9 to 5: The Musical at the Legacy Theatre, March 31 to April 16.
The 9 to 5: The Musical made its Broadway debut in 2009. It’s based on the 1980 comedy film starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman, where the three women, fed up with their terrible boss, plot to take him down.
“A lot of those iconic moments that are in the movie,” such as the women’s revenge fantasies and taking their boss hostage, “we’re making sure that we represent them in the show, sort of how people of a certain age might remember them,” said Ryan Lewis, the production’s musical director and an EMU Department of Communication, Media & Theatre Arts lecturer and musical theater accompanist.
“It’s the vibe and feel of the movie, and the script is really great at paying homage to that. A lot of the characters are expanded and developed more, and I feel like the script is fantastic at doing that. We get to understand their frustration a little bit more than you do in the movie.
“Our set designer Jeromy Hopgood is great with those period pieces and so much of it is in an office in the ‘70s. What does that look like? What does that feel like?
“But then the office has to have a change when the ladies start taking over and start making those big changes. They’re subtle, but they’re significant changes. What are those and how do we make it a brighter place? And a more friendly workplace?”
In 9 to 5: The Musical, Violet Newstand (Leah Saunders), Doralee Rhodes (Brookelyn Hannah), and Judy Bernly (Abby Siegel) struggle with being women in a male-dominated workplace at Consolidated Industries. Newstand can’t get promoted, Rhodes has been objectified, and Bernly has been jilted.
They become fast friends while working for Franklin Hart Jr. (Isaac Cantrell), their smug, sexist, and hypocritical boss, and circumvent political roadblocks placed by co-worker Roz Keith (Mollie Cardella), Hart’s protector and secret admirer.
“These three ladies who know each other come together; they bond, they become a family, and they take care of each other,” said Phil Simmons, the production’s director.
“I love it that our students are getting to see that because we preach that in our classes—that that’s how the real world is and that you’ve gotta take care of everybody.”
That strong female camaraderie and empowerment is especially reflected in the performances and personalities of the three leads—Saunders, Hannah, and Siegel—in 9 to 5: The Musical.
“[Leah Saunders] who plays Violet does have her personality in real life, especially that sarcastic humor,” said Simmons, a professor of musical theater in EMU’s Department of Communication, Media & Theatre Arts and School of Music and Dance.
Like Simmons, Lewis also noted the similarities between actresses Hannah and Siegel and the personalities of their characters Violet Newstand and Judy Bernly, respectively.
“Brookelyn [Hannah] who plays Doralee is super sweet and … when she sings she has that authentic ‘countriness’ that Dolly Parton has kind of innately,” he said. “Abby Siegel who plays Judy is very demure and kinda shy like the character, but she can sing her face off.”
Much of that portrayal includes expressing the characters and their circumstances through the iconic music and lyrics written by Parton. The legendary theme song, “9 to 5,” features the three leads and an ensemble belting out new and old lyrics from Parton’s original 1981 No. 1 hit.
“When we got the license to do this, Dolly herself does voiceovers, and in the opening numbers she says, ‘There’s Judy, she’s just in a divorce,’ or ‘There’s Doralee, and y’all know who Doralee is,’” Simmons said.
“She kinda describes the ladies so you get to see [them], and you get a little exposition, and that’s where the cast is swirling around them and their bedrooms. By the end of the number, they have assembled the office, which I think it’s interesting that in the libretto the office is called the ‘bullpen.’”
Outside the bullpen, Judy Bernly, Doralee Rhodes, and Violet Newstand each vent their frustrations about work and share a telltale song about seeking revenge against Franklin Hart Jr. and his toxic behaviors.
Judy Bernly’s “The Dance o’ Death” paints her as an unforgiving femme fatale, Doralee Rhodes’ “Cowgirl’s Revenge” spotlights her as a vengeful rodeo star, and Violet Newstand’s “Potion Notion” depicts her as an evil Snow White.
“Instead of the projections that they did on Broadway or in the movie, our costumer is putting the office workers [for Violet’s scene and song] in bunny ears, and they will have cottontails,” Simmons said.
“There are also deer and a raccoon. They all play little scared animals that help [Violet Newstand] assemble the potion, and they help her pour the coffee and everything.”
While 9 to 5: The Musical pays homage to memorable movie scenes, it also goes beyond the film to expand some of the characters, especially Roz Keith as a villainess. As Franklin Hart, Jr.’s devoted supporter and admirer, she admits her love for him in the song “Heart to Hart.”
“The interesting thing about the young lady [Mollie Cardella] that we cast here is that she is a musical theater major and a dance minor. She TAs many of my dance classes, and whenever we cast her, she’s always a dancer,” said Simmons, who's also a co-choreographer for the production along with Jenn Felts and Quintin Steers.
“Jenn [Felts] is working with Mollie to age her a little bit, and we’ve forbidden her to dance well. In our classes, Ryan and I have wanted Mollie to stretch herself more character-wise rather than always relying on herself as a dancer.”
In addition to dancing and movement, the crew has choreographed all of the production’s transition scenes throughout its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
“It’s the characters or the ensemble in character moving us from one scene to another, so I think that is unique,” Simmons said. “We are leaning heavily on the light design to help us to set locale because this is a big musical. There are lots of locations, and they happen really fast.”
The production’s music also aids in those transitions and keeps the cast and audience firmly planted in the late 1970s.
“The music is great at setting up the time period and the feeling of what’s going on. That’s always very exciting, and it’s fun music to play, too,” Lewis said.
“Dolly’s music and the orchestrations are fantastic at setting up what this late ‘70s music kind of feels like, especially the transition music is my favorite stuff. I just love the music on it.”
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.
“9 to 5: The Musical” runs Friday, March 31 at 7 pm; Saturday, April 1 at 7 pm; Sunday, April 2 at 2 pm; Friday, April 14 at 7 pm; Saturday, April 15 at 7 pm; and Sunday, April 16 at 2 pm at EMU’s Legacy Theatre, 124 Judy Sturgis Hill Building in Ypsilanti. For tickets, visit the EMU Department of Communication, Media & Theatre Arts' website. Suggested for ages 14 and up.