You've Come a Long Way: L.A.'s Broadway-Bound Babies

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Last season was tough for musicals in Los Angeles. There were a number of big, local, world-premiere musicals (Ray Charles Live, Atlanta, Mask) all gunning for Broadway, but bad reviews and tepid audience reactions seem to have scuttled those plans. This season though is looking much better for musicals with LA pedigrees. Right now, two home-grown musicals are running in New York: 13 which premiered at the Taper two years ago and The Marvelous Wonderettes, which was a hit at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

vanities14.jpgAt the same time, two musicals here in Los Angeles, Vanities and 9 to 5, have already secured Broadway runs for next year. The first of these, Vanities, is based on an Off-Broadway play from the 1970's. Written by Jack Heifner, Vanities follows a trio of friends from high school through college and then adulthood. It's very conventional material, but the play obviously found an audience back in 1976 when it debuted. (It ran for over five years, in part due a young Kathy Bates in the role of Joanne.) The idea of adapting this thin play (allegedly written in two days) into a musical isn't a bad one—sometimes simple material is best for musicals, as it allows composers some freedom to add complexity and their own stamp. Unfortunately, music doesn't richen or add depth to Vanities, thanks to the generic, irony-free ballads that make up David Kirshenbaum's score.

It's always hard to make a three-person musical feel like more than just a revue. With insightful, witty songs, one can imagine Vanities succeeding as sort of cabaret show; but at the Pasadena Playhouse, Judith Ivey's production strains to plump up this small character study into a large-scale Broadway show that's scheduled to open in February.

Two months later, Broadway will see another LA-to-New York transfer with a 1970's, feminist bent: the musical adaptation of the film, 9 to 5. Like Vanities, 9 to 5 focuses on a trio of women, who instead of bonding as cheerleaders, come together in the secretarial pool of a big, bland corporate office tower.

9 to 5 Photo 05.jpg The artistic merits of 9 to 5 (currently running at the Ahmanson) aren't vastly superior to Vanities—it also has its share of bland, forgettable tunes (the playbill credits the music and lyrics to Dolly Parton, but besides the infectious title song, only a handful of numbers have the iconic singer/songwriter's unique twang). However, 9 to 5 has two big things going for it. One is timing. With the stock market collapsing and CEO's watching their backs, 9 to 5 is a full-throated endorsement of working class America. It's not a particularly sophisticated look at labor or capitalism—the three women succeed in the company only because they kidnap their chauvinistic boss after putting rat poison in his coffee—but its "hey, working people deserve respect too" message will likely resonate with audiences, at least those who can afford full-price theater tickets.

9 to 5 Photo 10.jpg 9 to 5's other great asset is Allison Janney, who plays Violet Newstead (the Lilly Tomlin part in the movie). Janney is a commanding stage presence and even though she's not a great singer or dancer (this will be her first Broadway musical) she easily steals this show. Marc Kudisch plays the Dabney Coleman role like a mixture of Burt Reynolds and Schneider from One Day A Time. Like the electric typewriters and cans of TAB that litter the stage, it's more a collection of 1970's artifacts than a performance. Megan Hilty looks and sounds like Dolly—but not much else—and Stephanie J. Block sings well and is sufficiently mousy in the Jane Fonda role of the recent divorcee.

A better title for 9 to 5 (and Vanities for that matter) would be simply "You Go Girl: The Musical." Instead of any real drama or insight, the show offers grand wish fulfillment—it's basically Wicked for working women—which combined with Janney, the economy and Joe Mantello's sleek production could add up to L.A.'s Center Theatre Group having a bona-fide Broadway hit.

9 to 5 runs through Sunday at the Ahmanson Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image of Vanities and all other photos: Craig Schwartz