When Jeff Calhoun was 21, he appeared as a dancer in the movie "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and had his picture taken with its star, Dolly Parton. Twenty-nine years later, he took that photo with him when he went to meet with Parton, composer of 9 to 5: The Musical, hoping to become the director of the show's national tour.
"I went to see her in Nashville because I needed her approval," says Calhoun. "I led the meeting with that photograph, and it was done. She took it as a sign that this was meant to be. And it's been smooth sailing ever since."
Some might wonder why Calhoun was eager to direct and choreograph a show that had a disappointing run on Broadway and received mixed reviews. While he won't comment on the Broadway production or the work of its director, Joe Mantello, Calhoun said he believes 9 to 5 has the potential to become a big hit on the road and beyond, much in the way that Legally Blonde the Musical became a huge success on tour and in London.
"I've wanted to do this show from the moment I heard years ago that there was going to be a musical of '9 to 5,'" says Calhoun. "I was heartbroken when I found out they hired someone else. So to have the opportunity to work on it now is like manna from heaven. This is a great show with a great score, and I really believe this production will be a showcase for the wonderful material. If we're successful, there's already interest from the West End. We hope that what happened to Legally Blonde happens to us. That's the template." 9 to 5, based on the 1980 movie about three women seeking revenge on their sexist boss, launched its tour in Nashville in September, with three-time Tony nominee Dee Hoty as Violet, Diana DeGarmo as Doralee and Mamie Parris as Judy.
Written by Patricia Resnick (who also wrote the screenplay) and co-choreographed by Lisa Stevens, the musical has been very much reconsidered for its touring life. William Ivey Long is once again the costume designer, but the physical production by Ken Foy — who did not work on the Broadway show — is brand new, and much simpler.
"This is a period piece, and the show is now framed within the '70s," says Calhoun. "I wanted to marry the physical production with the material. All evening you're aware of Sonny and Cher, 'Charlie's Angels,' Edith and Archie. When you walk into the theatre, we have a show curtain that represents all of this. Right away you're in that world, having a good time. I'm trying to make this show feel like one of those wonderful, unpretentious, witty, heart-filled variety shows from the '70s. I could say the show is about the women's movement, but it's really just an evening of great entertainment."
Some of the music has been cut, songs have been re-ordered and the book has been tweaked. "Dolly and Pat have been so gracious," says Calhoun. "They haven't said no to anything." One major change is that the character of the boss has been reconceived. "He's now a charmer, like Bill Clinton...you see why people fall for him."
But the biggest change, says Calhoun, is that Parton is now "participating" in the show. "That's a bit of a teaser, because I can't be specific. But people will leave the theatre having had a wonderful experience with Dolly Parton."