By Will Broaddus
---- — When the movie “9 to 5” was released in 1980, it was set in the present. But when the musical version appeared on Broadway in 2008, it was set in the same time period as the movie.
That means this story about three secretaries getting revenge on their sexist boss, which is currently playing at the North Shore Music Theatre, is now set 30 years in the past.
If this makes the stage version seem partly an exercise in nostalgia, it also raises the question of whether the story’s feminist message is still relevant.
“We’ve come a long way, baby,” said Dee Hoty, who stars as Violet Newstead in the music theater’s production. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Hoty, who has been nominated for three Tony Awards in her career, had recently graduated from college and was trying to make it as an actress in New York when she first saw the movie.
She loved “9 to 5,” but remembers thinking that Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin looked old when she saw it in 1980.
She thought they looked young when she watched the movie again in 2010, to prepare for her role in the national tour, but also realized how much she had in common with Violet, the office supervisor played by Lily Tomlin in the movie.
“I looked at the movie just to refresh my memory, for the shape of the whole story,” she said. “Now I do identify with Violet, making her way in a man’s world. You make your own breaks, but she keeps getting passed over.”
It has never been easy for Hoty, either. When she was in her 20s, auditioning for her first roles in New York, she supported herself by selling cosmetics at a department store and cat-sitting in friends’ apartments.
“I just started pounding the pavement,” she said.
Now that she has earned Tony nominations for starring roles in “The Will Rogers Follies,” “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public” and “Footloose,” Hoty admits that her hard work has paid off.
She has also starred on Broadway and in eight major U.S. cities in “Mamma Mia,” and most recently appeared in a revival of “Bye Bye Birdie” at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York.
“I’ve made a living in the theater,” she said. “It’s a minor miracle.”
But none of it has been easy, and she has no illusions that things could have turned out differently.
“I always thought you could have it all,” Hoty said. “But I was never sure you could have it all at the same time. It’s a hard balance.”
Hoty thinks the theater world is even more competitive now than in the 1970s, and tougher on young people trying to make a career.
“I think they are so much better prepared than we were,” she said. “There’s some wonderful talent out there, but just being good isn’t a guarantee that you’re going to work. There are plenty of talented people answering phones and waiting tables.”
“The business has changed,” she continued. “People don’t just go to the theater anymore; there are so many choices for your entertainment dollar.”
Hoty thinks the version of “9 to 5” at North Shore Music Theatre, which she first toured with in 2010, is better than the one that first appeared on Broadway.
“In the Broadway show, my sense was they were more literally trying to put the movie onstage,” she said. “They had the money and the hydraulics. There was too much going on.”
The touring version stripped the excesses out of the production, in terms of both the play and the props, and in doing so allowed the show’s message to shine.
“My whole thing is telling the story,” Hoty said. “In 1979, they didn’t have those bells and whistles. Your imagination will fill that in.”
At a time when the economy has affected women and men alike, the play’s message of people pulling together and taking a different path to success is one that resonates, Hoty believes. It’s also incredibly funny.
“I’m still doing it, and I find it hilarious,” she said. “These women form a bond, this unlikely band of women just trying to get through the day, and it morphs into this thing with their boss. Everybody gets their comeuppance.”