On the tails of what many are calling the best Tony Awards in decades, I sat down with one of Broadway’s brightest lights and loudest sirens, 9 to 5 star Stephanie J. Block, to see what’s up with the newest cult classic to make the stage.
So before we get to the staples of 9 to 5, I have to ask if all the incidental Wicked quotes that seem to pop up in this show have anything to do with the fact that you’re a former Elphaba and Megan Hilty is a former Glinda? Believe it or not it was already in the script. Dolly wrote that before it was even a part of the workshop. Usually it’s a huge, huge laugh. Last night was pretty quiet … more times than not, it will be a huge laugh.
9 to 5 defines the very essence of cult film! What has it meant to work with such a well-known piece of material … what did it mean to you growing up? Growing up, I was a little too young to quite get it. My mom would watch the film, she would laugh hysterically, and I would notice her laughter, but I didn’t quite understand what the gist of it was. I certainly know that it is an iconic piece, that these three women have made their mark on these roles, but I got to tell you, it’s what, 30 years later, and people that actually love this movie will just kind of go, “Oh, it was fun to watch it on the stage.” They can quote it, they are like, “Well, what happened to this scene?” or “Don’t you wear this little over the shoulder sweater on the first day of …” I mean, they know it like the backs of their hands, so I wasn’t to that extreme. Of course I watched it and wanted to get all of the right moments that Jane created for this character but it’s an archetype, so we’re staying true to the film you know. You saw it last night, and it’s pretty accurate. Pretty much if you love the movie, you’re going to love the musical … there’s even more to the musical than there was to the movie, but it means a lot that they trusted the three of us as actors to carry the torch and move forward with this piece, but now as a completely different thing.
You’re playing a role of a role, and you bring so much to the show yourself, it’s not like reinventing it, — it’s making it real, going from the bare script and doing it again and making it in a whole different light, and really making it your own, and you absolutely do that. You were Judy Bernly, not Jane Fonda. With all due respect, the actors Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin and Dolly really wanted that to happen. A lot of people were saying, “What’s it like to play Jane Fonda?” and I lovingly correct them and say when I opened the script it said “Judy Bernly,” who’s a fictitious character — and like I commented before, Jane made her mark and did it well on certain aspects. From the whole film, there were certain things I wanted to make sure infused in my performance, but by no means did I want to mimic or copy what she had done because it is a brand new thing. And now this Judy sings and dances and has different lines than what was in the movie, so yeah, thank you for saying that, that means a lot.
What’s been the reaction from the three original renegades? We were so nervous … the first time they came to see us was opening night in Los Angeles, and we knew they were going to be out there, and we wanted to make them so proud. Dabney Coleman was also there, so Mark knew his counterpart was going to be in the audience, and we were nervous but really excited because we thought we were true enough to the movie and yet were able to extend these characters through music and orchestration and dances. And they immediately came backstage and beelined back to us and just gave us their blessing and said, “You guys are doing an amazing job, you’re touching a brand new audience.” And Jane said “I’m so glad you kept certain bits,” and she used the term “our role,” and that really just meant a lot. And once we got their thumbs up, once we got the renegades’ thumbs up, we just thought were doing it right. It’s in our own shoes, but we’re doing it right. It felt great.
Its so great that they’re so unified, and I thought that was always so sad about like The Golden Girls — not that you can really relate the two, but you know, after the show ended, they would never do a work together or even an interview together. They were just very separate. Dolly went to Jane’s opening night which, in and of itself, having Jane Fonda on Broadway after that 46 years of her not being there, that’s an added bonus and a blessing too. But Dolly went to her opening night, and Jane has been there for so many of Dolly’s events, and Lily came and sat with Allison [Janney] in her dressing room. It’s been a lovely little sorority with the six women.
How has the show changed since its inception, like most shows do? You have your first rehearsal, and you’re like OK, time for some notes. How has it really changed for you? It has changed a lot. It didn’t necessarily change from our first day of rehearsal to when we got to Los Angeles, but we learned so much in our out of town. Now from Los Angeles to Broadway, we’ve cut six songs, and Dolly wrote three more to replace them. We needed to cut ten minutes off that first act. We actually made, for the hospital scene, a song called “I Killed the Boss,” which is now just a scene in and of itself with underscoring. We found what was really hitting it out of the park as far as we were concerned. I got a couple more laugh lines this time around, which was great. One of my songs with the copy machine was completely cut, and that was for technical aspects. You would say, “Dolly, I’m not feeling these lyrics. They worked in L.A., but now they’ve changed.” And she’d say, “OK, well what are you feeling?” And that woman will grab anything, like a paper towel or a paper plate, and will start writing different lyrics. You give her 20 minutes, and shell come back with four different versions of what you thought. It’s unbelievable.
Speaking of transitions, the show seamlessly and flawlessly transitions not only between scenes but also between moments. For me, it was when the “9 to 5” opener ends, and all of a sudden you just notice that there are desks and walls and filing cabinets all over the place, and you’re like wait, how did this happen? And then there’s the whole montage scene of the three women and how they morph from character to environment so dramatically. Thank you! When we sat down for the first meeting, Joe said this set was going to be a monster … we are going to have an LED lighting screen in the back, and it’s going to do some things that Broadway audiences have never seen. And he said, “I want to stay very cinematic with this piece.” The crew here is amazing — we trust them with our lives. Most musicals have between 17 and 18 scene transitions, and I believe we have 47. It’s a spectacle.
From your perspective, what are the audiences like, who are they? First of all, the gay community is loving it and supporting us in full force. There isn’t a better community to support us and give us their thumbs up. They adore Dolly, and she adores them, so to have that sort of reciprocal “I give, you give back” — it’s amazing. Our other majority is what we call our Jersey Girls, but the ladies who are coming back are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and it’s so fantastic because they know what it’s like to sit at the typewriter, they know what it’s like to be sexually harassed … they can recognize exactly what we’re putting on stage every night. They’ve lived it.
That was my favorite thing about this performance, that it’s not even a show, it’s an environment. You don’t need to understand what they’re saying, what it means, how it translates. It’s completely an experience, and because you’re part of it, it’s so much more. And I know people are going to think this is planted, but it is not, this is one actor to another. Jane Fonda in 33 Variations, her transition from starting as a healthy woman and kind of disintegrating through the course of two hours was a master class. It’s something I won’t forget.
What is your opinion of all these movies, like The Little Mermaid and Shrek, being translated to stage? I have mixed feelings. I think if it’s good it’s good, regardless of where it came from. We always want to strive as artists to do original material and more of Broadway is coming from scripts or scores that have already existed. But if you can reinterpret them or recreate them, that’s always a challenge, and I have to reward that. Broadway is becoming so family-friendly that in those shows it’s the parent taking the child that wants to experience it through their daughter or their son who’s quite young. I think that’s a brilliant way to introduce a generation to theater, but for me I’ve done both sides of it. That’s how I started, at Disneyland, so I played every singing princess there is, and one of the three little pigs, so I know what children are thinking — “Oooh that Disney character coming to life! Or that fictitious character who I’ve read about in books has come to life.” It really opens their imaginations, and that’s pretty swell.
So your new CD, This Place I Know — amazing! It’s such a musical evolution, migrating through genres and eras, yielding something so beautiful, but so innovative. You collaborated not with other influential singers, but instead with composers. Tell me more about that. I went to Stephen Schwartz, and I said because I had done the workshops with Wicked, and there was a great song called “Making Good” which then got scratched for “The Wizard and I,” and I just wanted this little song to live. So I went in and I said, “I’m thinking of doing an album, and I want you sitting at a piano and me sitting and singing ‘Making Good.'” So then we went into the studio there shortly after and recorded it, but I had to put it away for a while — I was doing Wicked, and playing Elphaba eight times a week leaves no extra time on your voice to record a CD. I resumed after Wicked, and I reached out to ten composers who have really touched my life, or I had heard a song of theirs that had never been recorded, and I thought, “This needs to be recorded!” And I lucked out — most everybody said yes. Dolly was the last one I had asked, and not because she didn’t touch my life — I wanted her desperately, but the last thing I want her to think is that I was asking more of her, crossing that boundary, like everyone’s tugging at her skirt, and I didn’t want that to be me. So I took a few days to compose an email, and the very next morning she replied, “Absolutely, I would love to!” and she decided we’d do “I Will Always Love You,” but making sure we did it differently than how it’s been done in the past. So I asked Steven Oremus, who was our conductor and did a lot of arranging for 9 to 5, to put together this beautiful thing, which turned out to be almost a lullaby.
The album definitely evolves as the songs play. What’s your favorite song from it? Oh, I’ve got many. The first one that comes to my mind is the initial track with Dolly Parton. And why that touches me is because of the experience I had with her and the way that truly changed everything. The entire album is my baby. It’s the first thing I’ve ever produced, it’s the first thing where the buck stopped here and I made most of the decisions. I paid for almost every cent of it, so it’s like the first baby fund. But that first song that sets the tone of the album is by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, called “Something Beautiful.” To me it really encompasses what I wanted to say with the album because it says I will make something beautiful, I will be something beautiful, I will leave something beautiful, and I thought that’s what these next 13 songs are going to be.
So your big showstopper, the soon-to-be-feminist-anthem “Get Out and Stay Out.” We didn’t expect that from Judy Bernly. I love singing my guts out and touching the back row. This character was new in the fact that I had to keep my singing voice in check. Judy wouldn’t sing with that voice yet, Judy doesn’t know what that sort of fervor and weight is. She’s so fragile, and she’s just trying to figure life out, and she’s confused and hurt, and I shouldn’t be singing in that stratosphere in that big force yet. So for me to know that little by little my character is moving inch by inch, and finally in the 2 hour and 15 minute mark I get to let loose, its fantastic because I, Stephanie, wanted to sing in that voice in the first 5 minutes stepping on stage. Judy can’t, and Judy shouldn’t, and it really is a lovely exhale and release for me, Stephanie, and for the character Judy. I absolutely love it.
What’s your dream role to play? My role would be Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. She truly forms to me what that sort of musical theater goddess would be like, and that role is so fantastic. It’s a gorgeous score, and hasn’t been on Broadway in what, 45 or 46 years? But Barbra has really put her stamp on it. My thing is, it’s about Fanny Brice, so I think there is a different way it could be approached and put back on stage by somebody going “Yeah you still have to sing your guts out because that’s what the score is”. To play it like Fanny Brice and not try to re-enact or try to step into the shoes of Barbra Streisand.
It’s funny because with that role, I feel like it’s so duplicitous — she’s both terribly awkward, yet oddly confident of herself, and she wavers between the two — it’s both expression, it’s movement, and to do that, I think you would be able to do it perfectly after her … Yes! And she’s vulnerable, and she’s needy. I’m getting a little long in the tooth, so we’ve got to push sooner rather than later!
It’s all about roots — what was your first role ever? My first role ever, I was townsperson number 4 at a Fullerton Civic Opera, and I would audition for them all the time. I mean, if there was The King and I, my mother would put a high bun, and give me eyeliner, I auditioned, I auditioned, I auditioned. It was between me and another girl for Annie, and I didn’t get it. I auditioned for everything at Civic Life Opera, and finally I got the very important role of townsperson number 4 in Annie Get Your Gun.
Photo: Joan Marcus
9 To 5 Musical Tickets