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How Dolly Parton's 9 to 5 musical tackles workplace sexism and horrible bosses

Written by
Ben Neutze

It’s difficult to quantify the impact of 9 to 5. The 1980 comedy was Hollywood’s first explicitly feminist blockbuster, starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as office workers who join together to take revenge on their vile, sexist boss. Its enormous success at the box office proved there was an audience for stories led by complex women claiming their independence, paving the way for hits like Thelma and Louise and The First Wives Club.

But despite that impact on cinematic history, what the film has to say about women in the workplace has lost none of its currency. Its message was heard around the world, but did it really sink in?

“We think we got there, but then we kind of slipped,” says Marina Prior, who is taking on Tomlin’s role, Violet, in the Australian premiere season of 9 to 5 the Musical. “You think, ‘surely we should be living in a post-feminist society,’ but we’re not, because we’re still fighting for the same pay, the same value and intrinsic worth.”

Erin Clare, who’ll be stepping into Parton’s shoes as Doralee, says the story takes on a different resonance following the #MeToo movement, which has seen more women speaking openly about workplace harassment than ever before.

“When the film came out, it was almost like a farce,” she says. “It was like, ‘how amazing would it be if three women got together to take down their boss,’ and now that is happening, and it’s been happening for the last three years.”

The stage version hews closely to the plot laid down by the film and is penned by original screenwriter Patricia Resnick, with a score of old and new songs by Parton herself. It premiered on Broadway in 2009, but was reworked by Parton and Resnick for a successful West End production that opened last year and was celebrated for its comedic smarts (and has a killer role for Caroline O’Connor to play in the Australian tour as an executive assistant desperately in love with her horrible boss). That’s the version of the show Australian audiences will see.

“Dolly is such a genius at threading storylines through her songs in her own world, so it makes sense that she’d write a musical where the songs do just that,” says Samantha Dodemaide, who rounds out the leading trio as Judy, the role made famous by Fonda.

Parton, whose popularity seems to be greater than ever right now, thanks in part to the hit podcast Dolly Parton’s America, is something of an emblem for the production, and has crafted songs in a wide range of styles, from country-inspired pop to classic Broadway-style song and dance numbers. 

Clare and Dodemaide are Parton fans, but starring in one of her shows is a full-circle moment for Prior, who grew up busking in Melbourne with her trusty guitar. Parton songs were a regular inclusion in her sets.

“Dolly has this great saying: ‘find out who you are and do it on purpose,’” Prior says. “That’s a great ethos for us, in the entertainment industry, where your image can be flipped and maneuvered.”

Prior, who started out playing ingénues in shows like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, has evolved her own career since it kicked off in the late 1980s. She’s been playing predominately comedic and character roles since 2000, when she convinced the producers of Guys and Dolls to let her audition for the comedic role of Miss Adelaide, after she was asked to play the pure-as-snow Sarah Brown.

“I remember people around me were saying, ‘that’s career suicide, what are you doing?’” Prior says. “It was all ‘you have to stay where we put you.’”

But although Prior has spent almost two decades playing tough, funny women, the show’s story of women standing up to a bully in the workplace resonates loudly with her. When she was just 20, Prior starred opposite acting great Richard Harris in an Australian tour of Camelot.

“He was the producer, the director and the star of the show,” Prior says. “But he yelled at me, he bailed me up against a wall, screaming in my face when he wasn’t happy with how a scene went. He was a bully. And I was 20, and I’d done one show before, and I remember just being so cowed and scared and upset and… it still makes me emotional when I think about it. I think about my daughter and if somebody was being like that to her; I’d want to tear their throat out.”

While Prior’s Camelot story doesn’t come with as many laughs as 9 to 5, she did manage to find the strength to give Harris an ultimatum: either he started treating her with more respect, or she’d leave the show. 

“From that moment on, he treated me like a queen. In a way, it’s probably the single best thing that happened to me professionally, because I learnt who I was and that I’m actually a lot tougher than I looked. After that, nobody has ever, ever intimidated me. No matter who they are, I’m not scared of anyone.”

Photograph: Supplied

Pearls of wisdom from a rhinestone queen

Not only does Dolly Parton have a song for every situation, she’s usually got a saying too. Here are just a few of our favourite Dolly quotes...

“I know some of the best Dolly Parton jokes. I made ’em up myself” – Because she’s always one step ahead of her detractors.

“I'm not going to limit myself just because people won't accept the fact that I can do something else" – For when you need a reminder that you’re more than what the world would have you be.

“Storms make trees take deeper roots” – When you need a push to get you through a tough time.

My songs are like my children – I expect them to support me when I'm old – Luckily, she wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’.

“We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails” – After five decades in the music industry, Dolly knows a thing or two about adapting for survival.

“You know, I look like a woman but I think like a man. And in this world of business, that has helped me a lot. Because by the time they think that I don’t know what’s going on, I then got the money, and am gone” – Advice worth taking to the bank.

9 to 5 the Musical is at Her Majesty's Theatre from July 25. Check out our picks of the best musicals coming to Melbourne.

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