Former Northwestern University student Jeff Calhoun says he often gets calls from friends who are watching him sing and dance in gay bars across the nation. Calhoun isn't physically there, but is on screen as one of the high-steppin' football players during "The Aggie Song" in the 1982 film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
"I was so much thinner then," said Calhoun during a telephone interview from San Diego where he was directing a new musical version of Emma at the Old Globe Theatre. "I was a 19-year-old chorus boy dancing with Dolly Parton."
Dancing played a part in Calhoun recently re-teaming up with Parton again. Calhoun was hired as the director and choreographer to a revamped national tour of Parton's 2009 screen-to-stage Broadway musical adaptation of the hit 1980 film 9 to 5. And Calhoun is certain it was the Whorehouse connection that cinched the deal.
Back during the filming of Whorehouse, Calhoun couldn't get home for Christmas due to the shooting schedule. So he sent out Christmas cards to family members featuring a photo with him alongside Parton.
"I went to Nashville to meet with Dolly and I showed her the photo," Calhoun said. "Dolly saw it and took it as a sign from Jesus to hire me and the rest is history."
Calhoun's job was to restage 9 to 5: The Musical for a national tour following its disappointing five-month Broadway run. Calhoun collaborated with set designer Kenneth Foy to create a streamlined staging where the actors moved set pieces instead of relying on mechanized scenery (which was known to break down during the Broadway production).
Calhoun also worked directly with Parton and book writer Patricia Resnick to tweak the material. Songs were reshuffled or dropped, while Parton herself was incorporated into the show as a narrator via video projections.
For the 9 to 5 tour, Calhoun reunited with leading lady Dee Hoty (who worked with him in The Will Rogers Follies and The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public) in the role of Violet Newstead (played originally by Lily Tomlin) and with American Idol finalist Diana DeGarmo (who starred in the national tour of the musical Brooklyn that Calhoun staged and co-produced) in the Parton role of Doralee Rhodes. Also in the cast is Broadway veteran Mamie Parris as Judy Bernly, the role originally played by Jane Fonda.
Although the show is still set in the late 1970s, when there often wasn't any recourse for employees facing sexual harassment in the workplace, Calhoun said the show can't be entirely written off as a period piece since there still is a huge inequity in the salaries between men and women. Yet Calhoun added he doesn't want audiences to solely focus on the gender dynamics in the workplace.
"It's really about laughs and a great score by I think one of our great American songwriters of all time," Calhoun said. "And I hope we encourage Dolly to write more music for the theater because I think theater needs her voice."
9 to 5: The Musical runs now through Jan. 30 at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe. Tickets are $32 to $95. Call 800-775-2000 or visit www.broadwayinchicago.com for more information.
Sad news from The Second City
The Chicago theater and comedy community was dealt a major creative blow when Mary Scruggs passed away Jan. 11. Scruggs' cause of death was unknown when the Chicago Tribune reported the news the next day.
The 46-year old writer and actress was the head of writing and education program for The Second City Training Center and had a major influence on many aspiring writers and actors who passed through the program.
I myself had the pleasure of working with Scruggs when I entered a comedy sketch on a whim to a joint contest sponsored by Chicago Dramatists and The Second City back in 2005. I was lucky enough to have my sketch chosen, and was even more privileged when my sketch director Rob Chambers of The Second City Training Centers roped Scruggs to appear in the sketch when it was produced at Donny's Skybox Theatre at The Second City.
I distinctly remember the cheers from the audience every night when Scruggs walked out on stage. It was a sign if there ever was at how loved and respected she was by her many, many students at The Second City.
I also had the pleasure of seeing Scruggs perform her own material in the one-woman play Missing Man, performed at the former Live Bait Theater in 2006. It was all about Scruggs' participation in the Run For the Wall, an annual event that sees hundreds of motorcyclists riding en masse from Los Angeles to the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
At the time, I felt Missing Man would have been the perfect candidate for an episode on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, or a feature film. Now that Scruggs is gone, I would hope that others would continue to perform the piece or adapt it into other mediums so Scruggs' work will continue to live on.
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