When Newsies and Bonnie And Clyde director Jeff Calhoun returned to Dolly Parton’s 9 To 5 The Musical for its UK tour there was a note he received from the producers which stayed with him.
“They told me the show would play better in England if it was faster and more like a caper,” says Calhoun, who also directed the US tour of the Broadway musical.
“As soon as they gave me that guidance I went back to the movie and realised that a lot of what had made the film a caper had been jettisoned from the show. So we started to put that stuff back in.”
Based on the classic 1980 movie starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, 9 To 5 The Musical sees three women working for a sexist boss turn their revenge fantasies into reality.
The stage version has been penned by original screenplay co-writer Patricia Resnick, with Parton adding new original songs to her classics Backwoods Barbie and the hit title song.
And for this UK tour version Parton has penned a new song to replace three which were removed from the original Broadway show.
“There is a section in the movie which goes into fantasy about ways of killing their boss,” says Calhoun from Connecticut.
“In the show there were three separate fantasies, with three different songs. It began to feel like a different show – and after the first one the audience would realise they had two more to sit through. We have turned them into one.”
To do that meant Calhoun having to meet one of America’s national treasures face-to-face in Nashville to ask to dump some of her work.
He need not have worried. “She took it so easily,” he says. “She said, ‘If it makes it better for the show, you go ahead and do it.’ “About a week after I met her we got an MP3 with a new song [Shine Like The Sun].
“Dolly is everything you want her to be, she doesn’t disappoint.”
Having spent the preparation time for the US tour making sure that the Broadway show could go out on the road, Calhoun is pleased to have had this time to revisit the musical.
“I’m very happy with it,” he says. “We have finally got it right. There is no substitute for time, especially in theatre which keeps evolving. You are always striving for perfection, and at some point you have to say stop. Knowing when to do that is the tricky part.”
The production has embraced the film’s setting at the end of the 1970s, with the stage curtain before the performance featuring a montage of icons from the period – from Margaret Thatcher to The Muppets.
“Those were the most impressionable years for me, when I was a teenager,” says Calhoun. “It was the Carol Burnett Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and variety. I wanted to make the show a celebration of variety.
“It’s important to contextualise the show, and do something beautiful before the hideous costumes and hairstyles of the 1970s appear. I don’t know what we were thinking back then...”
He believes that although the technology at work has changed beyond recognition – with carbon paper and Xerox machines replaced by computers – humanity hasn’t as much.
“Women still don’t get paid as well as men,” he says. “We have women CEOs, but there is still that descrepancy in the equality of the workplace.
“Everyone can still relate to the fantasy of stringing your manager up.”
When it came to casting the UK tour, Calhoun was pleased with the standard of performers he was able to pick from.
“The cast is exceptional,” he says. “The talent pool now for musical theatre in the UK is just as good as it is in New York around Broadway, which wasn’t always the case.
“Making up a show cast is like dating: you cast people you would want to go out with on a date – essentially the audience is having a two-and-a-half hour date with them. I figure if I want to spend time with them so will the audience!”
Playing Tomlin’s original role of under-appreciated office supervisor Violet is Jackie Clune, with Ben Richards as evil boss Hart, Bonnie Langford as his nasty executive assistant Roz, Natalie Casey as Fonda’s office new girl Judy, and Amy Lennox as Hart’s object of lust Doralee, the part made famous by Parton.
“The musical benefits from the nostalgia of the movie, but doesn’t suffer from a direct comparison,” says Calhoun. “If people remember the movie at all, they don’t remember it specifically enough to hold a mirror up to it.
“I remember when we did High School Musical people said we couldn’t do it without Zac Efron as Troy, but the show worked – the role is more powerful than the star.
“If that original casting was so important no one would ever do Grease because John Travolta isn’t in the main role!”
What he is most proud of with 9 To 5 The Musical is its appeal across the age groups.
“When we opened in Wimbledon one of the audiences had three generations of the same family in it – who all enjoyed it,” he says, as he prepares for some down time after a five-year show cycle which has seen him direct the hits Bonnie And Clyde, Newsies, Jekyll And Hyde and 9 To 5 in the US.
“Usually shows appeal to a much narrower demographic, but this one seems to transcend generations.”
Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Monday, December 10, to Saturday, December 15. Starts 7.45pm, matinees on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday at 2.30pm, tickets from £15. Call 0844 8717650