While many people who are talking about Maryville College’s “9 to 5: The Musical” are reminding us how timely the 1979 narrative of workplace harassment is in today’s world, one thing stood out to me a bit more as I worked to prepare costumes for the cast members. It stood out as I was picking out clothes for the character Judy Bernly, and it stood out when I struggled to find anything for her. “9 to 5: The Musical” is the most diverse body-type show I’ve ever worked.
“9 to 5: The Musical” had two plus-size women leads: Kara Van Veghel as Violet Newstead and senior Hannah White as Judy Bernly, as well as many ensemble members also being bigger women. And sure, there was a bit of challenge to find costumes, as we were at the mercy of thrift shops; however, in the end, I’m proud of the work we did. Sophomore Allison Parton, who played Kathy, ended up wearing one of my dresses for the show, and there was something really uplifting about seeing her dance around in clothing of my own. The atmosphere in the women’s ensemble dressing room was one of positivity, even as everyone began to get tired of the show. I spoke with each of the aforementioned women, and they, too, said they were proud to be a part of a body-positive musical.
I remember, before the tech rehearsals started, anyone on the run crew, which included myself, had to attend a crew watch, and there was a moment in the middle of the opening song, “9 to 5” where Judy emerged from the crowd of bustling workers. As a few of the ensemble members froze around her, and I realized something: the casting for the show contained more plus-size women than I’ve ever seen in a show in my whole life. More than a professional show, more than any community show and definitely more than my high school’s productions. I’ve worked in theatre shows for almost four years now, and plus-size women have always been treated as a token or a background character. There had to be a plot-specific reason for them to be cast, and even then, sometimes smaller women would be cast and then put into what can only be called “fat suits.”
The last large-scale musical I worked was my high school’s production of “Bring It On,” which has an actual body positivity subplot. That show’s subplot centers on the character of Bridgette, who considers herself abnormal because she’s big and nerdy – both things for which she was ostracized. Bridgette learns to love herself throughout the show because one boy has a crush on her, and her friends encourage her to date him.
There were about three plus-size women in the cast of that show, which had a cast of roughly 30. The actress who played Bridgette, however, did not seem to fit the characterization. As costumer, I bought oversized clothes to purposefully make her look bigger, so it didn’t seem like a ridiculous plot. The other two were ensemble members who only got a few scenes of stage time, and both were in the “B Girls” Ensemble. For a show with a song about loving yourself, there didn’t seem to be a focus on bodies other than skinny ones.
In our production of “9 to 5: The Musical”, all the women were allowed to simply be. They were allowed to wear cute skirts, flowery dresses, polka dots and shoulder pads and simply breathe and live on stage. They were allowed to complain and it not be a joke. Working “9 to 5: The Musical” and getting to work with these amazing women — who are all so inspiring has reminded me of what it’s like to feel like to belong in theatre. There is something revolutionary about casting plus-size women on the merit of their talent, not because the script called for it.
So, I love “9 to 5: The Musical” with my big, plus-sized heart. I will be thankful for this entire cast, because seeing a reflection of real life through women and men of all sizes and shapes coming together to create a wonderful show is truly amazing.