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TV exec turns back the clock to stage '9 to 5'

EntertainmentTheaterMusical TheaterBroadway TheaterTelevisionShowtime (tv network)

In many ways, the first act of "9 to 5: The Musical" played out 35 years ago at a Catholic high school in a small Midwestern city better known for churning out screws than producing titans of stage and screen.

Surrounded by cornfields, the middle-class manufacturing town, 90 miles northwest of Chicago, was something of a mecca in the 1970s for a group of energetic teenagers who loved the performing arts.

It's one thing for Hollywood High to churn out Judy Garland, Sarah Jessica Parker and Laurence Fishburne.

But Boylan Central Catholic High? In Rockford, Ill.?

Back then Bob Greenblatt, now one of the most powerful TV executives in Hollywood, was a too-tall freshman with alarmingly red hair and horn-rimmed aviator glasses who would do just about anything to be part of the school play. But he was happiest sitting at the piano in the pit during rehearsals, plunking out an 80-page score he'd never seen or shouting lighting cues backstage and building sets after class.

In the school auditorium, Greenblatt met a dark-eyed teenager playing Benny Southstreet in "Guys and Dolls," among other roles. That young actor, Joe Mantello, would later conquer Broadway as both an actor and director, and be hired to stage "9 to 5" (which opens tonight on Broadway) by Greenblatt, president of entertainment at Showtime Networks and a force behind someof the edgiest shows on television.

It's hard to imagine why Greenblatt, an attention-to-detail guy with a considerable day job, would take on such a monumental 5-to-9 task as a multimillion-dollar musical. This is, after all, the man who brought Showtime out of the shadow of HBO and was the catalyst behind shows such as "Weeds," "Dexter" and "The L Word."

Greenblatt balks at the notion that maybe he was or is getting bored with television.

"I don't think of myself as a risk-taker, I just thought: the theater -- I fundamentally love it and have a great understanding of it and I know my way around putting major entertainment pieces together. . . . So I thought, I'm going to surround myself by people who really know what they're doing and then rely on my gut instincts."

He also brought in his old Rockford pals.

The girl serving the Firewagon special (a scoop of everything) at the Last Straw, the ice cream shop in town where the theater kids hung out, was instrumental in introducing Greenblatt to Dolly Parton, who wrote a new collection of songs for "9 to 5." And another carrot top a few years behind Greenblatt in high school ended up in the ensemble cast of "9 to 5."

And on and on.

Rod MacDonald was a professional actor who had just finished the national tour of "No, No, Nanette" when he took a job as musical director at Boylan Central in 1974. The school already had unusually high standards, set by MacDonald's predecessor who traveled to Manhattan every summer to see Broadway shows and then tried to re-create them in Rockford.

MacDonald continued the traditions, bringing in a professional choreographer, a set designer from Los Angeles and renting costumes from the storied Brooks costume company (now Brooks-Van Horn) in New York. But MacDonald, now 83, insists it wasn't the wardrobes that made the shows exceptional: "Most of the kids were extremely talented and hip. They all had a creative bug and the desire in them."

But Greenblatt remembers how, at 13, he was dazzled during the third act of "No, No, Nanette" at Rockford's community Starlight Theatre when the female chorus came out in beaded flapper gowns. "I thought, 'Oh my God, how did that come to be?' "

At the time he was studying classical piano, but turned to Cole Porter and George Gershwin. "I was hooked," he says. "And then I got to high school, and we did all these great productions ourselves, and I began working summers at the Starlight."

Two summers after high school, Greenblatt went on a first theater trip to New York with Mantello and several others. They stayed at the Warwick and over five days saw seven shows, including the original "Sweeney Todd." Greenblatt still has all the Playbills from that trip -- and every show he's seen since.

After high school the theater friends dispersed: Greenblatt eventually went west, Mantello went east and others distinguished themselves in the hard-to-crack entertainment industry.

Over the years, the theater posse from Rockford occasionally reunited at opening nights and dinners on one coast or the other, sometimes watching old videotapes of their performances in high school. A favorite pastime was a game of "What movies would make great musicals?" One evening they were debating the potential of "The Graduate" and who would star in the musical when Greenblatt -- or was it Sharon Sachs? -- suggested "9 to 5."

During an interview at Showtime's New York offices -- conveniently located five blocks from the "9 to 5" theater -- Greenblatt, who has long since shed the glasses and trimmed his hair that has softened to a deep auburn, pauses for a minute, searching for the exact moment he decided to turn the 1980 movie, starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, into a musical.

All he can recall is coming across the screwball comedy while switching channels on cable. "I would stop, even if it was in the middle, and watch to the end. And then I found myself really thinking, "I wonder if '9 to 5' would make a good musical?"

In 2003, just about the time Greenblatt went to work at Showtime, he obtained the rights to the show. But it would take five years before it would have its premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and later open at the Marquis Theatre on Broadway.

Mantello, who declined to be interviewed for this story, had agreed early on to help his Rockford pal without a formal commitment. At the time, he was in rehearsals for the "Wizard of Oz"-themed musical "Wicked." A huge fan of Parton, Mantello ultimately signed on as director.

Former classmate Paul Castree (that other redhead) recalls watching, during one of the first tech rehearsals for "9 to 5," Greenblatt, Mantello and Linda Wallem (the waitress at the Last Straw who is now co-writing "Nurse Jackie" for Showtime) and feeling 30 years disappear. "What were the odds we'd be back together?" he says.

In the rehearsal, after one character gave another a high-five, Mantello and Wallem questioned whether the gesture even existed during the period in which the musical takes place. Greenblatt immediately pulled out his phone to search Wikipedia and found the answer. (Yes, pro-basketball players began slapping palms, circa 1979, about the time "9 to 5's" three fictional secretaries were flexing their independence from the boss.)

"There we were again -- Joe asking a pertinent question, Bob being super-organized, cross-checking for answers, and me, listening and laughing along," says Castree.

Broadway neophyte Greenblatt says he relied heavily on the pro, Mantello, who has won Tony Awards for staging "Assassins" and "Take Me Out" and was nominated for his performance in "Angels in America."

"If he wanted to hire Attila the Hun to design the sets," says Greenblatt, "great, we'd get Attila the Hun because that's his vision." He would only step in if it came down to something the show couldn't afford. For the first time, Greenblatt was in a position where there was no studio budget. To raise the millions needed, he was on his own.

While he won't reveal exactly how much he raised -- "I will only tell you it's more than $10 million and it's less than what 'Shrek' and 'Billy Elliot' had" -- he admits he hated that part of the process.

Television has its challenges, but there is always a safety net available in the editing room. By contrast, night after night, live theater can get dodgy.

The show opened in September in Los Angeles to mostly mixed-to-positive reviews but was also plagued with technical difficulties, the mere mention of which, to this day, unsettles the hands-on Greenblatt.

"Mortifying," he burbles, describing the midshow breakdowns. "Extremely mortifying."

On a warm Saturday night, during the Broadway previews, Greenblatt, a shiny coat of sweat on his freckled face, is standing in the back of the theater at the end of the show eyeballing several smiling but perspiring audience members as they exit.

"I hate this," he says. "I hate that we can't get the theater ventilated properly."

Greenblatt has longed for L.A.'s sunshine after spending the last nine weeks preparing for tonight's opening. Clearly he's had difficulty adjusting to Manhattan's spring weather, which alternates between icy cold and devilishly hot -- when it's not raining.

"I tell people I'm going to get my dad in here to fix this system if they keep giving me excuses. . . . Cool the theater!"

The son of a Rockford air conditioning contractor doesn't see the irony of a Hollywood big shot literally sweating the details in the back of a theater on Broadway. But it's clearly where he wants to be.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

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