On stage: ‘9 to 5’ in 2019

“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.

Music Walmart made me Hate Part 1: T.G.I.F.

Different people like different music. That’s an understatement.

There are various reasons for this phenomenon. One of the main ones: Music has associations. People hear music during parties, concerts, movies, traffic jams, house cleaning, and even sex. You don’t just hear the song. You hear your own subtext.

I could go on and on about associations that I have with certain songs and how those associations have changed. Instead, I’ll talk about two songs that I heard during my year working nights at Walmart (Yes, it’s one word these days). I probably wouldn’t have loved either song very much regardless. They’re not really my style. Still, it was my year at Walmart that made me hate them. I actually have enough to say about this first one to take up a long post. The next one will be shorter, I promise. And it will be a Christmas song.

1. Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”

Sorry for subjecting you to it. Like I said, I hate it.

I drove a long distance to get to work. Sometimes I switched between radio stations. My favorite station was 90.3 The Rock, mostly because I could never tell what they would play next. I got curious though about what more mainstream top 40-type stations were playing.

Now unlike many people I know, I don’t hate current pop songs just because they’re pop songs. It’s not the kind of music I buy or download much, but it’s not the worst thing on Earth either. Some of it has fond memories attached to it.

But hearing this song time after time made me ready to hate humanity for liking it. Sometimes I’d go back to the mainstream pop station to see if they’d quit playing it. They hadn’t.

There I was, listening to this song while driving to work on Friday night. I was willing to work any hours they wanted because I was desperate to get a job and have people there like me.

Often on Friday nights they’d have me working as a greeter. Sometimes I stocked shelves or alternated between the two jobs. It’s a weird place to be on Friday. Walmart is one of the few stores that’s open all night. You’d see laughing friends coming in from a night of partying or couples passing through on date nights.  The couples were at various levels of hand-holding, sometimes up in each other in more awkward ways. Sometimes people ran, ready to get through and start the night.

And there I was. I was single, alone, and had a whole night of work ahead of me. I got used to it and even learned to enjoy the variety of customers. I learned to relate to them. Some of them were as broke as I was, and Walmart was their idea of a crazy night out. In the first few nights though, it sucked. I was jealous. And my jealousy had to have a mock-panicked  cheery pop song as its soundtrack. Rub it in why don’t you? Gloat about your expensive debauchery.

Even once I got over that, there was still the more subtly annoying fact that it was expensive debauchery. There she is, singing about how she maxed out her credit card but will do it all again. She owns a pool. Also, she has servants to give her ginger ale. Why don’t you pour it for yourself?

It made me like country music more. Many of my fellow associates listened to country and nothing else. In modern country music people go partying all the time. The difference? They often emphasize that they’re drinking cheaper domestic beers, or that they’re just taking a break from life’s trouble.That’s better because it’s relatable. Country stars don’t talk about expensive things except when planning funerals.

Honestly, I preferred Rebecca Black when she was  singing about carpooling rather than appearing here. It’s worth noting that the Great Depression gave us “Oh Brother Can You Spare A Dime” while the Great Recession gave us “T.G.I.F.”

Now a bit more about Miss Perry (or Miss Hudson) herself.  Her parents were traveling ministers. Then, as she put it, she sold her soul to the devil.

For Katy, selling her soul meant gloating about everything she could do that her parents might not like. If she had been Orthodox Jewish, her first song would have been “I Ate a Shrimp and I Liked It.”

Granted, I didn’t mind that song. So you’ve only made it to first base with a girl? Nothing to feel jealous about there.

But on T.G.I.F. the smug clouds get thicker for me. It was not because I objected morally to anything she said. It was because she talking about doing expensive things as if they were nothing. And it’s based on a true story. In the words of a Mexican-American girl I knew from California, “Katy Perry is a white California girl.” She’s also a rich one.

So why did I subject myself to this song? I could have avoided it after hearing it once, right? Well, after hating it so much, I wanted to make a parody of it about working at Walmart:

“Last friday night/stocked the creamers and the butters/ worked one box and then another/stabbed my hand with a box cutter…”

You get the idea. I’d go on, but I’m not sure if you want the radio edit version or the one with swearing.

Signing out (with NOFX no less),

Ben Pounds

P.S. The skinny-dipping part didn’t bother me. I went to Warren Wilson College where skinny-dipping was practically an official pastime. It’s cheap too.