“I’ve never met a man I didn’t like. But I’ve never met a man who I couldn’t kick his ass if he didn’t treat me with the respect he should” -Dolly Parton in an interview
The largely sold-out play “9 to 5” at Oak Ridge Playhouse, a small-town community theater is nearing its last weekend and may well have sold out by the time I run this.
I point this out because theater reviews for me aren’t so much about whether to see the play as they are about what the play makes me think of. After all, most of this blog’s readers aren’t necessarily able to seen the plays in the Knoxville area. And with this play, there’s plenty to think about.
Community theater shows tend to bank on nostalgia and recognizability. Indeed the play “9 to 5” is both nostalgic and recognizable, especially in East Tennessee where it’s lyricist Dolly Parton owns or at least has her name on, a theme park, a water park and several dinner theaters. The film it’s based on came out in 1980 and the play takes place in the late 1970s as Dolly Parton herself, who appears by projection at the play’s beginning emphasizes that time period, a time of typewriters and secretaries and when “the boss didn’t care about no women’s movement unless it was under his desk.”
See, that’s what makes this play so interesting now, as opposed to 2008 when it originated in Los Angeles. It’s something that can be popular at a community theater still, but is something typically only associated with college productions and small regional theater shows: a story with a topical message about the current world. And, perhaps, unintentionally so.
The original film was intended by Jane Fonda as a work of advocacy, even if she was trying to avoid it being too preachy by cloaking the film’s point in farcical antics. As a side note, I am happy that Oak Ridge Playhouse used the US version rather than the UK version, keeping in the fantasy dream sequences, parodying gangster films, westerns and Disney films that was one of the film’s highlights.
As another side note, Dolly is one of the few people who can enjoy a friendship with “Hanoi Jane,” openly embrace an LGBTQ fanbase and still enjoy a thriving amusement park business in the middle of a red state.
Anyway, reviews of the original musical, many years later in 2008 and later when it debuted on Broadway tended to portray it as “harmless” at best or dated at worst. And given the play’s explicit setting in the 1970s, people might consider it like they originally did “Hairspray”: a campy musical about stuff we’ve already overcome.
But then in 2017 #metoo hit, making sexual abuse a topic on people’s minds again. And this play was positioned to already be a response.
With Dolly writing music and lyrics, the character of Doralee who she originally played, naturally seems to have gotten an expanded role. And, as in the film she’s a sexual harassment survivor. The show, especially in Parton’s lyrics makes more light of sexual harassment than people probably would if it was written now. But the show gets away with it because there’s no mistaking where the play’s sympathies ultimately lie, given Hart being bound and kidnapped and the empowerment anthems the leads belt throughout the rest of the show.
And to be fair Dolly, a businesswoman who seems to have won by being at least outwardly nice to everyone, doesn’t call herself “feminist” or endorse political candidates. But there’s no mistaking where she stands.
I’m calling this focus on sexual harassment, somewhat greater than in the original, “unintentional” on the part of the creators because Doralee’s expanded role was probably just because Dolly was writing the music and lyrics, so giving her songs like her rather meta “I am” song, “Backwoods Barbie” was probably just what appealed to her. But now it reads differently.