“What’s funny about working 15-hour days and getting paid for 40 hours work a week?” asks Jane Fonda in her autobiography, My Life So Far.
Turns out, a hell of a lot.
Actress and activist Fonda couldn’t predict comedy would be part of the equation when she began pondering a film about the American workforce in 1979, after friend and fellow advocate Karen Nussbaum got her interested in the plight of underpaid, underappreciated female office workers. But Nine to Five, the resulting film released in 1980 starring Fonda, comedienne Lily Tomlin, country sensation Dolly Parton and a perfectly cast Dabney Coleman as their boss, went on to become a comedy landmark, a top-grossing flick that was later honored by the American Film Institute as one of 100 funniest movies of all time.
You’d never know the film, about three beleaguered co-workers teaming up to teach their misogynist boss the ultimate lesson, pulled its hilarious story from the sometimes painful experiences of real office warriors. And no one involved with the film could have suspected where their brainchild would end up almost 30 years later—on a Broadway stage.
There was nothing funny about the problem. “Karen told me about sexual harassment, about women being on the job 15 years and seeing men they trained get promoted right past them and made their supervisors, and about clerical workers at some of the wealthiest banks who were paid so little they were eligible for food stamps,” Fonda wrote in My Life So Far, about the impetus for the film.
“She had a huge amount of information and strong feelings about what was going on, not just with women,” recalls screenwriter Patricia Resnick, hired to write the original draft of the film, of her first meeting with Fonda. “The big issue was making it palatable for people, and comedy was one way to do that.” The smaller issue was that Resnick, then a blossoming writer and former waitress in her mid-20s, had never actually worked an office job, necessitating some unique hands-on research in order to churn out a believable script.
“I went on a job interview to see what that was like,” Resnick recalls. “My typing skills were so poor that even though I’d been a writer for several years, I couldn’t secure a job! But the guy in charge of the typing test did make a pass at me, so that went right into the ‘Mr. Hart’ character.”
For research purposes, Twentieth Century-Fox sent Resnick to its insurance company, a huge corporation in downtown Los Angeles that, with its sprawling floors packed with desks this was before the advent of cubicles, closely resembled the anonymous company “Consolidated” in the movie. Resnick spent weeks taking notes, observing the interactions between dozens of office workers and interviewing executives and secretaries. “People were very open with me—especially after a three-martini lunch,” she quips.
The stories that emerged became the foundation for Nine to Five, with some plotlines going directly into the final draft of the script. “There was one secretary no one liked, and they all told me she was having an affair with the boss. But when I went out with her myself, it turned out that wasn’t true. That story led directly to Doralee and her plotline.”
While Resnick was spending time in the trenches digging up screen-worthy dirt, Fonda was also hard at work seeking the right co-stars for a socially aware movie that could deliver its message with widespread appeal. She found both simultaneously one serendipitous night, with a little help from the radio.
“I went to see Lily Tomlin in the one woman show Appearing Nitely later titled The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, and fell head over heels for this woman and her unique, spectacular talent,” Fonda would later write. “Driving home from the theater that night, I turned on the radio and Dolly Parton was singing ‘Two Doors Down.’ Bingo! Lily, Dolly and Jane!”
With Fonda backing the production supported by friend and former agent Paula Weinstein, then an executive at Fox, Nine to Five got the green light almost immediately. Parton would play the part of sexy, sassy secretary Doralee Rhodes, under constant scrutiny from her co-workers due to boss Franklin Hart’s sleazy advances, while Tomlin would appear as no-nonsense supervisor Violet Newstead, a longtime employee beaten down by gender discrimination. Fonda rounded out the trio as naive Judy Bernly, a mousy divorcee tossed back into the workforce after the end of her marriage to a man who left her for his secretary, natch.
“We did have backups in mind, just in case,” Resnick remembers. “For Lily’s part we discussed Carol Burnett, and Ann-Margret for Dolly’s. Both would have been wonderful, but it would have been a very different movie.”
Along with the support of Fox Studios came writer and director Colin Higgins, who would ultimately rewrite much of Resnick’s original script, changing the film’s morbidly comedic vibe to something more palatably outlandish. “I had [the women] actually trying to kill the boss in various funny ways,” Resnick explains. “[Higgins] felt that was too dark and transmogrified that theme into the fantasy sequences in the film.” Explained Fonda, “Colin asked [real-life office workers] a question that took me by surprise: ‘Have any of you ever fantasized about what you’d like to do to your boss?’ The women burst out laughing. You want to know what we fantasize? Shazaam! We had the central idea for our movie,” Fonda wrote.
The scenes ultimately struck comedy gold, though they did draw criticism from one high-profile moviegoer: President Ronald Reagan, who considered the leading ladies’ marijuana-fueled murderous daydreams an “endorsement of pot smoking for any young person who [saw] the film.” Hey, you can’t please everyone.
Business and Pleasure
If you’re looking for gossip about behind-the-scenes infighting between Nine to Five’s leading ladies, on-set diva fits or scandalous hook-ups, this backstory will disappoint—because there weren’t any.
“It was a very happy set,” Resnick recalls. “There was real friendship there.” Fonda expanded on this theme in her book, describing the entire experience as “a joy from start to finish,” something she attributed largely to the talents and contributions of her castmates. “With great comedians the work seems just to flow spontaneously, but I learned from watching Lily it’s not like that. Through her quirky and always identifiable characters, she reveals truths that lie just outside our consciousness; she wakes us up.”
Big-screen newcomer Dolly Parton who, unfamiliar with the filming process, arrived on set the first day with the entire script memorized received the same glowing reviews: “I had never met anyone like Dolly,” wrote Fonda. “She always had a wisecrack, usually high raunch, that would break us all up. [She] specializes in laughter. Hers is somewhere between a girl’s giggle, an explosive shriek, and a cascade of little bells. It’s not her boobs that precede her through a door, it’s her laughter. Between that and the clicking of her spike heels, we could always hear her coming.”
On the set one day, Parton got a rhythm stuck in her head, one she began tapping out on her acrylic nails. “[That’s] how I wrote the theme song,” the star told Broadway.com, clicking a full set of hot pink digits against one another for emphasis. “I couldn’t have my guitar on set because it was so cumbersome. I was just over in a corner by myself and started singing: ‘Workin’ nine to five, what a way to make a living…’” Eventually, Parton inviting the entire cast and crew to record the chorus with her when she hit the studio to record the theme. The songwriter’s nails, sadly, cannot be heard in the recording. The single, a relentlessly catchy anthem for anyone caught in the daily grind, went on to earn an Academy Award nomination, reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100, sell over a million copies and earn Parton two Grammy Awards. “So [those nails] really worked out well,” the songwriter laughed.
The movie itself, which debuted December 19, 1980, was also a hit, grossing over $100 million in the United States alone while building a devoted cult following. “The thing that surprised us was how appealing it was to all age groups,” Resnick says now. “I think the boss became emblematic of any authority figure. For kids, he was a parent or teacher; for the rest of us, it was the government, our bosses, anything that has power over us and makes us feel helpless. We hadn’t foreseen that.”
Making the Old Girls Sing
The fact that Nine to Five is now a stage musical, poised to take on Broadway beginning April 7 at the Marquis Theater, is no surprise to Resnick. The writer explains that the film, which spawned a short-lived TV series in the 1980s starring Parton’s sister, Rachel Dennison, as Doralee, Rita Moreno as Violet and Valerie Curtin as Judy, had won the interest of musical theater types, including Annie creator Martin Charnin, long before the announcement of Broadway’s 9 to 5.
“We had talked about this as a musical for years, but it never came to fruition,” Resnick says. In 2006, she began to shop the idea of an intimate stage production using a collection of trunk songs about the daily grind, modeled after the Studs Terkel/Stephen Schwartz collaboration Working. The concept caught the eye of Hairspray’s Tony-winning composer Marc Shaiman, who had existing songs he felt could work in the show. Then, just as the piece began to develop, Resnick had a momentous meeting with Showtime Network head Robert Greenblatt, and the project took a different path. “He’s a big theater fan, and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do Nine to Five as a musical.’ That was the start.’”
As Resnick laid out a book for the stage adaptation, she and Greenblatt reached out to the obvious first choice for music and lyrics. “Bob and I flew to Nashville and met with Dolly. She said, in that accent of hers, ‘Well, I’ve never done something like this, but I’ll take a crack at it. But if I’m not doing good, you tell me and get someone else, OK?’” Parton ended up being more than up to the task, penning more than 20 new tunes to accompany the film’s title song. Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello, a high school friend of Greenblatt, signed on next, rounding out a creative team that would later include Tony-winning choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.
A reading of 9 to 5: The Musical took place on January 19, 2008, featuring a cast including Tracey Ullman as Violet, Alice Ripley as Judy, Megan Hilty as Doralee and Marc Kudisch as Franklin Hart Jr. A second workshop had Ana Gasteyer as Violet. In the end, the creative team settled on a Broadway cast led by Hilty, Kudisch, West Wing alum Allison Janney as Violet and Stephanie J. Block as Judy.
“Megan Hilty is unbelievably cute,” says Resnick. “I always tell her I want to put her in one pocket and Dolly in the other, because they’re just tiny, adorable people. She’s likable in the way that Dolly is, but is also able to make the role her own. As for Kudisch, who played a bad boss to Tony-nominated success in Thoroughly Modern Millie, Resnick says, “Anyone who is familiar with Marc knows he is perfect for this.”
9 to 5 opened its pre-Broadway run at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles on September 20, 2008, winning two Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography; all four original film stars were present.
“Having Jane, Dolly, Lily and Dabney there was amazing,” Resnick says. “It was like getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Jane got really teary, then Dolly, then suddenly everyone was choking up. It was an emotional evening in a great way.” Despite the good feedback from the role originators, the creative team knew that the show needed more work before its Broadway bow.
“It was good in L.A. I think it’s great now,” Resnick says. “Dolly’s written new songs that are amazing, funny and moving, and we’ve made better use of our performers.” Changes include a new song-and-dance number for Kudisch “It’s funnier and a better showcase of his talents.”, the alteration of Judy’s fantasy from a big-game hunting of the boss to a film noir-style “Dance of Death,” and the trimming of the song “Tattletales,” an office gossip number that the creative team felt slowed the action. “All the fat is gone,” Resnick says. “What’s left is that stuff that really works.”
Resnick and the team are confident that audiences will relate to the storyline on stage the same way film audiences did in 1980, if not more so. “If anything, the workplace has gotten harder over the years! Nobody gets to work just nine to five anymore—and I’m sure people would love to.”
Ultimately, the show’s success will hinge on the very characteristic that made the original incarnation a hit: laughter. “The big thing with the movie was that is was just funny,” Resnick says. “I can’t tell you how many people over the years have come up to me and said, ‘[Nine to Five] is my bad day movie, because it always makes me feel better.’ The musical absolutely does that as well. It’s a great time for that because, really, we all need a laugh right now.”