“9 to 5″ is the 39th annual Muse musical. Comprised of approximately 110 students from across the Miami Valley, including cast, musicians and production assistants, the show upholds the long-standing Muse tradition of producing big shows with large casts.
“‘9 to 5′ is a perfect Muse Machine show,” says director Joe Deer, staging his 11th Muse musical. “This show has a community in it, the whole community of a people who work for a corporation, and Muse tends to do these shows really well. It also has a lot of roles, particularly great female roles, which is a challenge in musical theatre. Muse always has such an abundance of really strong young women audition but we don’t always have enough roles to serve them. But this year we have strong female roles that play to different strengths for different actresses. And inside all of the comedy, there are good ideas about women being given voice.”
Service and devotion
The “9 to 5″ principals include Lucy Dennis as executive secretary Doralee Rhodes, Addison Haines as divorcee Judy Bernly, Maggie Weckesser as office manager Violet Newstead, and Jack Wyant as Franklin Hart, Jr.
Dennis, a senior at Stivers School for the Arts who participated in last season’s Muse production of “The Little Mermaid,” finds feminine kinship with Doralee in the song “Backwoods Barbie,” originally heard on Parton’s 2008 country album of the same name.
“It’s an important song because it’s about Doralee claiming her identity,” Dennis says. “Everyone in the office kind of sees Doralee as someone who is trying to impress the men with her hair and makeup but in (reality) she’s just doing what she wants to do for herself, which I think is relatable to a lot of women today. I like to do my hair and have my makeup on but I’m not doing it for any particular person. I’m doing it because I want to feel like myself and I want to be pretty.”
Haines, a sophomore at Springboro High School also seen in “The Little Mermaid,” grew up watching “9 to 5″ with her grandmother. She recalls always having a special connection to Judy’s timid personality and striking evolution.
“This is a story of triumph,” Haines says. “Judy’s mouse-to-lion transformation is lovely. You can be a small, gentle person pushed over your limits but still take back anything that has been taken from you.”
Returning to the production team are New Orleans-based choreographer Lula Elzy and musical director Jeffrey Powell. Both embraced the flavorful variety within Parton’s tuneful foundation when tackling their respective assignments.
“I approached this show with a lot of openness,” says Elzy, marking her 23rd season with Muse. “From the beginning to the end, the music and atmosphere keeps changing, which effects the movement. It’s so intriguing that the show moves from the sounds of pop and country to the sounds of the 1940s and big band. Song after song there’s a different story in the song.”
“Dolly conceived each of these numbers and all the instruments put in the colors that make the different genres and varieties of pop music,” adds Powell, director of the piano magnet at Stivers School for the Arts who is serving with Muse for the fifth time. “Dolly captures the change that took place in the late 1960s and beyond for all women.”
In addition to the iconic Grammy-winning and Academy Award-nominated title tune and aforementioned “Backwoods Barbie,” the Tony-nominated score includes new songs such as “Shine Like the Sun,” “Heart to Hart,” “One of the Boys,” “Change It” and “Get Out and Stay Out.”
“These are great songs by Dolly Parton and Dolly knows how to write a hit,” Deer says. “She’s like Taylor Swift. Dolly can write a song with a hook that’s really tuneful. And, of course, the audience will hear the song ‘9 to 5′ more than once during the show.”
There’s a better life
“9 to 5″ is a more mature choice for Muse Machine, which has a fond history of presenting shows from the Disney catalog to Broadway’s Golden Age.
Early in the rehearsal process organizers knew it was essential to educate the students about American working women in the 1970s, so they invited Academy Award-winning Yellow Springs filmmaker Steven Bognar to show and discuss his 2021 documentary “9 to 5: The Story of a Movement,” co-directed by his partner, the late Academy Award-winning filmmaker Julia Reichert. The documentary spotlighted 9 to 5, a group of Boston secretaries in the early 1970s who used unconventional methods to seek better pay, more advancement opportunities and an end to sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I think we’ve learned a lot in the process of making this show, especially about the history of the women’s movement and the 9 to 5 movement,” Deer says. “Steve Bognar speaking to the cast about the film and the movement was a great orientation and in a lot of ways set the tone for how we approached things. In the song ‘Get Out and Stay Out’ there’s a line that says, ‘now that I’m unfettered and unbound.’ It’s so beautiful. It’s also a sad statement that young women and young men still need to hear that. Here we are 43 years later and not enough has changed.”
The production has also been eye-opening for Wyant, a senior at Tippecanoe High School portraying a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” He views Franklin as a product of his time and has grown as an actor accordingly.
“As an actor, it’s interesting to approach the role and ask how you justify his actions, and for the audience it gives them a really clear picture of a full character,” says Wyant, appearing in his fourth Muse musical. “Franklin is of a time in which men were taught to think (a certain way) about the role of men and women in society. There isn’t room for him to be redeemed but he’s a worthy sacrifice so other people can learn from his (actions).”
In spite of the show’s mature themes, producer Douglas Merk, who has produced nearly 50 musicals, plays and concerts, assures Muse puts its own joyful, professional and respectable stamp on the material.
“Without deeply reconstructive surgery, it really is possible to give enormous shape to a show simply by the way we ‘lean,’ or the things we are compelled to bring stronger focus to,” says Merk, Muse director of student programs and marketing. “Stories are about their characters, regardless of where or when they occur — and we have enough time to live inside the characters with rather excellent performers. The loving bonds and the humanity and the strength of will often become emphasized in the Muse version of a show. And of course, when each dance number erupts, the spectacle of so many young people creates moments that can feel a bit cinematic sometimes.”
In the same boat with a lot of your friends
In November, Academy and Emmy Award winner Allison Janney, a friend of Muse Machine who grew up in Oakwood and received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Violet, surprised the cast at rehearsal. Janney unexpectedly joined Weckesser and the ensemble during their run-through of “One of the Boys.” Her appearance offered a prime moment for the cast to speak with someone directly related to the original 2009 Broadway production.
“We were all so starstruck,” recalls Weckesser, a senior at Chaminade Julienne High School. “Allison was so lovely. She encouraged all of us to embrace who we are in our roles and bring what we are to everything we do. She also talked about always playing to her strengths and we all learned a lot from that as well.”
“9 to 5″ marks Weckesser’s 17th Muse production. She began with Muse during “Crazy for You” in 2013 and has appeared in every Muse musical and concert since then. Notably seen with Muse as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and Wednesday in “The Addams Family,” she also represented Dayton on Broadway at the 2023 National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards.
“This year feels bittersweet but this isn’t my end with Muse,” Weckesser explains. “Muse isn’t just the months between October and January putting on a show. Muse is a family. I have 12 years of castmates and creative teams and those bonds are not just going to go away. Muse also taught me to be a functioning part of community beyond myself. This organization is so good at creating community and how important that is to the show that’s being produced. When you come to a Muse show, you can see how much love there is between all of us on stage.”
How to go
What: “9 to 5: The Musical”
When: Jan. 11-14; 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton
More info: daytonlive.org