Less than a week after the West End opening of Loserville, ATG brought its production of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 – The Musical to London’s Wimbledon Theatre for a national press night after opening the week before in Manchester. Here’s another pop musical, but for (and about) a wider, older demographic: older working women (not coincidentally the major ticket buyers in the theatre).
And it comes with two more factors that will help ensure its commercial viability. One is a well-known title from the cinema (and theme song from that film), bringing a high recognition factor; the other is the composer, Dolly Parton – who makes an onstage (filmed) appearance as the show’s narrator. Add in a fantastically well cast (and expertly drilled) company, and the result is one of the most sheerly enjoyable new pop musicals since Legally Blonde hit the stage.
Like that show, 9 to 5 beats to a strongly feminist heart about female empowerment and solidarity, born initially in subservience to the men they bow and scrape to, but finding their voice and independence of them, whether it be a disloyal boyfriend and predatory professor (in the case of Legally Blonde) or a chauvinist male boss and philandering husband (in the case of 9 to 5.
But if there’s another key feminist point to be made about both musicals is the large presence of women in their writing teams. For Legally Blonde, that is co-composer and co-lyricist Nell Benjamin (sharing those duties with her husband Laurence O’Keefe) and it also has a book by Heather Hach; for 9 to 5, that is, of course, both Dolly Parton as sole composer/lyricist, and also book by Patricia Resnick.
The writing of musicals is uncommonly (and uncomfortably) skewed towards male creators, particularly on the composer front. There are many more terrific female lyricists, from Dorothy Fields and Carolyn Leigh, both of whom wrote for Cy Coleman and others, to Lynn Ahrens, Betty Comden (the latter of whom shared those duties with Adolph Green) and Amanda Green (daughter of Green and actress Phyllis Newman). The far smaller clutch of female composers with Broadway credits, however, includes Mary Rodgers, Carol Hall, Lucy Simon and Jeanine Tesori; but it is striking that none of them have had the run of, say, a Stephen Sondheim or Cy Coleman.
But this season alone is bringing Kathie Lee Gifford back to Broadway as writer of book and additional music and lyrics for Scandalous, now in preview ahead of an official opening on November 15; and the Broadway-bound Kinky Boots, now in Chicago, ahead of a transfer to New York due to begin performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on March 5, with music by Cyndi Lauper.
Like Parton on 9 to 5, Lauper’s pop celebrity is providing a kind of insurance policy for it, not just in their names but also the fact that their songwriting abilities are a given. (In London, Tori Amos is working on a musical for the National Theatre).
But it’s not as if musicals are not being written by (non-celebrity) women. At the recent Mercury Musical Developments 20th anniversary gala, work was heard by female members that included Cathy Shostak, BB Cooper, Barb Jungr, Jennifer Toksvig, Gwyneth Herbert, Christine Denniston, Denise Wright and Pippa Cleary. So it isn’t an absence of members or ability.
Everyone who writes musicals, male and female alike, struggles to get their work put on; but can it be that women find it even harder, in a world dominated by male artistic directors? Perhaps there’s a more silent discrimination at work.