Working 9 to 5, Part 1

There are some movies that make you say, “Why did that become a musical?” when they hit Broadway. And there are others that make you say, “What took so long for that to become a musical?” A case in point is 9 to 5. The smash-hit 1980 film has three strong parts for actresses: the naïve Judy (played by Jane Fonda), the not-so-shrinking Violet (Lily Tomlin), and the sunny southern belle Doralee (Dolly Parton). With Parton’s Oscar-nominated theme song as a building block, it has office politics, empowerment, and a hissable villain, their oppressive boss, whom they kidnap and truss up with a garage door opener: in short, musical comedy in the making.

And 9 to 5 did make it. Directed by Joe Mantello, who recently resuscitated Pal Joey at Studio 54, the show bowed at the Ahmanson in LA last fall and opened at the Marquis in New York in April. Parton set Patricia Resnick’s book, a fine-tuned adaptation of her own screenplay, to music; choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler sets Allison Janney (Violet), Stephanie J. Block (Judy), and Megan Hilty (Doralee) in motion, not to mention the hung-up but not entirely immobile office tyrant, Mr. Hart (Marc Kudisch). Nominated for four Tony Awards, 9 to 5 received a record-breaking 15 Drama Desk nominations, including all eligible design team members.

Live Design spoke to scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer William Ivey Long, sound designer John H. Shivers, associate sound designer/production sound engineer David Patridge, and co-imaging designer Peter Nigrini about their work on the show. (The design team also included co-imaging designer Peggy Eisenhauer and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Kenneth Posner.) Among other topics, they discussed the evolution of the production, doing the show as a period piece, and the use of a formidable video wall, a 41' wide by 28' high Element Labs Stealth LED video surface, as a design element.

Live Design: How did the design evolve?
Scott Pask: The period in which the musical takes place was very important, but most critical to me was creating the world of the show by beginning in a wide open space, establishing the outside life of the three women, the office force, and freedom, and then to compress that world on all sides—and most importantly from above—as the work force got to the office and ultimately into the bullpen of desks to which they are enslaved. The compression of that oppressive work environment was accomplished with diagonal office walls shaping the sides of the bullpen along with the hive of honeycomb walls that take their cues from shapes of the ceiling pieces that push down from overhead to create that low office ceiling height. Also, due to the number of locations within the office and beyond, it was also extremely important to keep everything fluid as we shifted and changed perspective in the office itself and in the locations beyond.

William Ivey Long: I was stalking this musical. I just love Dolly Parton. Ann Roth, one of my heroes and the designer of the movie, was designing it, and I asked to be on the list should she have decided not to do it. She did withdraw, to finish work on a project she had been doing with the late Anthony Minghella, and Joe called me. It was exciting interpreting the film for the stage; on film, you can have close-ups, but on stage, you have distance, and you have to tell the full stage picture, sometimes with all 26 cast members on stage at the same time. Except for the three leading ladies, who wear bright colors that were suggested by the film, we went for no color on the costumes, and once they tie up the boss, color starts coming in. That’s something we could do on stage.

John H. Shivers: Joe Mantello let me roam free to decide what was appropriate for the show. Unlike a Tarzan or a Little Mermaid, the sound effects here were very practical and related to the action on stage. We put in a little bit of ambiance for the office scenes as the characters are typing or answering phones.

David Patridge: We’ve used the Yamaha PM1D digital audio mixing system on a number of shows, and given its reliability, Yamaha’s service commitment, and our past history with it, we’ve seen no reason to change. It’s a 10-year-old product, and though it’s tempting to look at other new products, it’s still extremely robust.

Next Page: How did you establish a sense of period?

Previous Page: How did the design evolve?

Peter Nigrini: Peggy felt the show needed another element and asked me to join in the process with her and Jules. What we provided was more animation and illustration than projection and video, thus the term “imaging” in our titles. We knew it was going to be LED, had to be fully integrated with the lighting, and run off a single desk—an MA Lighting grandMA, which also runs the lighting and occasionally triggers some sound cues. There are times when it’s a cyc, but it’s so very bright it can alter the entire stage picture. I pushed for adding a diffusion surface—a Rosco RP Light Translucent diffusion screen—in front of it for some of the time, so the surface could take on a different character, particularly as we made transitions. An exposed LED surface all the time just wasn’t going to be flexible enough.

The video wall surface is fully exposed for the opening number. While the Gerrietts Black Bobbinette plays all of the time as a kind of scrim, the Rosco sheet works primarily with the office set and Hart’s house. With the diffusion sheet, you get a much softer look that’s more background or scenic in nature. The exposed LEDs alone, 115,200 detailed little dots, never really sit down.

LD: How did you establish a sense of period?
SP: I was slavish about detail in that respect. I looked at tons of books about office furniture and landscape. That period was all on the edge of open versus closed offices, with secretarial pools and the powerful men on the perimeter with the window views. Hart’s office just had to be a pit of masculinity, just overwhelmingly brown and full of steroids—a contrast to the sleek metal office.

WIL: I thought, “What are the best looks on the planet in 1978, when the movie was being conceived?” Thank God it wasn’t in the 80s with all those shoulder pads from Dynasty.

PN: A lot of what we were looking at was 1970s-era film and TV title sequences, like Kojak. Buried in there as well is my little homage to Saul Bass and his work. There’s a style to them that made our work more cohesive. There’s a lot going on up there; the video wall is dark for 38 seconds in the entire show.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Robert Cashill edited the other LD, Lighting Dimensions, Live Design’s predecessor, once upon a time. Today, Cashill is a freelance writer and editor for numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal,, Time Out New York, and Playbill.

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