It’s opening night! Opening night! It’s Virginia Samford’s latest show… will it flop or will it go? And now that all the theater people are busy singing along in their heads, time to launch into another long post in the age of omicron chronicles. I haven’t really written much about my latest theatrical venture, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5: The Musical. I’ve had reasons for that. The first is that I’ve been a bit ambivalent about doing a large cast musical at this stage of the pandemic. The show was planned and I was cast before anyone had ever heard of the omicron variant and there has been grumbling in some quarters that the show should have been cancelled or postponed due to potential risks. I understand that thinking and I have certainly thought that way myself. I was somewhat relieved when I developed my mild breakthrough case when I did as it was over and my quarantine was up before I was really needed for rehearsals. My part, while integral, is small in terms of stage time and technical need so I really didn’t come into the show until late in the rehearsal process.
Part of the problem with writing these Accidental Plague Diaries is that some who read them have confused me with some sort of expert in virology and epidemiology. I’m not. I have a well trained mind and a breadth of knowledge, but I’m as human as the next person, bewildered by all of the conflicting information flying around the world through the system of tubes known as the internet and my writings are my way of trying to sift through it all and make some coherent sense out of what’s happening to our world. Like all humans, I have my biases, my short sightedness, my choices and lack thereof. Unfortunately, a lot of my friends seem to forget that and want to anoint me as some sort of Covid oracle, all seeing and certainly perfect in knowing just what to do when faced with the unknowable. Sorry… I don’t know that guy. Like everyone else, I’m trying to work out the risk benefit of various activities and how to stay safe myself and keep those around me safe as well. That’s the world we’re going to be living in for the foreseeable future.
Living in a world that does not have live music/theater performance is, to me, a world that’s devoid of life. Theater is as much of a calling as medicine or the priesthood, and it’s probably no accident that it developed, in the Western Tradition, out of religious rituals in Ancient Greece. Those of us with the calling, which includes all of us on and backstage at 9 to 5, are compelled to make this sort of art. In the height of the pandemic, we adapted to various on line versions of theater but we need to tell our stories in real time to live people. The audience gives us life as we give life to the audience, the one mirroring the other. If you don’t have that calling, or if your risk/benefit calculus is different than mine, I can understand not wanting to perform or attend a show at the moment and I support your decision. We’re all vaccinated, rehearsed in masks until dress rehearsal and, being actors and singers, know what to do to keep our bodies healthy and away from infection. Just as I trust my colleagues in medicine to look out for me as I look out for them, I trust my colleagues in theater.
When I accepted the part of Tinsworthy, the deus ex machina who appears late in the second act to make sure the plot comes out right and to reward the heroes and punish the villains, I figured I was just getting involved in a light piece of fluff that wouldn’t be too taxing. They added a second role for me in the first act as a corpse so I’d have something to do. It’s actually the more technically difficult thing for me. It’s not easy to lay motionless under a sheet on stage for ten minutes on stage while slapstick comedy is going on all around you. There is a verb in theater parlance ‘to corpse’ which means to crack up inappropriately on stage in front of an audience. Having now played a corpse, I understand completely where it comes from. I had seen a previous production of the show at the same theater ten years ago, but I remember very little about it other than it was innocuous fun. Tommy and I came in during tech and helped fix something. It may have been wigs, it may have been props. I can’t remember now what it was.
Having now spent some time with the show, it’s resonating in a very different way and this production is digging at some of the deeper themes under the surface. In this age of Covid and the Great Resignation, where we are grappling with whether we should Live to Work or Work to Live and our whole relationship with the workplace being rapidly redefined, this parable of feminism turning the tables on masculine corporate culture has a bite that it didn’t a decade ago. In many ways, our whole cultural moment is a tug of war between a masculine individualist ethos and a feminine cooperative one. That’s certainly been true in the social approach to the pandemic. One side is firmly on the side of individual choice and a belittling of precaution as fear mongering while the other side is about caring for all and trying to set up systems to protect families and friends and the vulnerable. I’m of the opinion the show sends the correct message and that’s resonating on an unconscious level with the audience. Theater goers tend to belong to social classes more in sync with the feminine approach.
I’ve worked with most of the principals multiple times on various projects so it’s old home week backstage. Everyone is bringing their A game and there’s not a weak link in the bunch with everyone having a couple of stand out moments. To me, though, the real stars are the young folk in the ensemble who are in constant movement throughout the show. The staging is cinematic with a lot of dance transitions and I don’t see how they can do all of that for more than two hours. I can’t and couldn’t even when I was their age. I’d have fallen over from exhaustion half way through the first act. They don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve and I privileged to appear on stage with them. I can’t even really sing the chorus parts. Most modern musicals are written with all of the male vocal arrangements for rock tenor and the tessitura is just too high for this bass baritone. I have the choice of screeching falsetto or singing down the octave. Fortunately, the only musical number I’m in is the finale and it’s not that difficult.
When you’re in the audience at a well produced musical, you’re watching just one facet of a complicated, well-oiled machine that starts ticking a couple of hours before the house lights go down. For everyone you see on stage, there’s someone else backstage you don’t see and it’s a whole other show there in the wings and the dressing rooms. This show is full of mass quick changes, rolling set pieces. and choreographed furniture, all of which has to be done to set musical cues. The offstage show in the wings is often more fascinating than what’s actually on stage. We’ve got most of the kinks worked out and the only person who missed an entrance tonight was Dolly Parton herself due to a technical glitch with a video cue. The amount of complicated team work and absolute trust one must have in ones cast and crewmates puts any team sport to shame. To me, it’s a lot more absorbing that sportsball. But there’s that masculine/feminine dichotomy again.
So, the show is good. It’s selling well so if you’re in the Birmingham area and want to see it, get your tickets now. I’m looking forward to the next three weekends. And yes, we wear our masks in our dressing rooms, keep our hands washed and sanitized and have our vaccines.