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

Taking the musical version of the film to Broadway, Showtime's Bob Greenblatt got more than a little help from his hometown friends.

April 30, 2009|Geraldine Baum

NEW YORK — 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 some of 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."

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