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‘Wives Club’ gets Motown sound

Holland, Dozier, Holland reteam for musical

Last fall, a Broadway producer not associated with “9 to 5” was hanging out in the plaza of the Music Center during the tuner’s pre-Broadway tryouts at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater. He’d seen the show early in its run and, for some reason, he was back to see it again. Maybe it had improved, he opined. But more likely, it had not improved enough, he added.

“It’s the basic problem with so many of these musical comedies based on movies,” said the producer. “The emotions aren’t big enough to support the characters breaking into song.”

Sure enough, “9 to 5” opened on Broadway six months later to unenthusiastic notices, and didn’t get a Tony nom for best musical, having been pushed aside by (oh, the shame!) a jukebox musical that told the story of (oh, the greater shame!) heavy-metal rockers on the Sunset Strip.

If success breeds imitators, so it seems does failure. Next up at the legit bat is the Broadway-bound musical version of the 1996 film “The First Wives Club,” ready to preem July 31, under the direction of Francesca Zambello at San Diego’s Old Globe. Again, we have an attempt to “make sing” a beloved, if not exactly classic, screen comedy about the slapstick antics of three mature women on a revenge trip.

If there’s an obvious difference in the two projects, it’s in the shows’ respective writer teams — and therein lies “Club’s” best hope. Where the “9 to 5” musical kept onboard its screenwriter, Patricia Resnick, and songwriter, Dolly Parton, who penned the film’s title tune, “The First Wives Club” eschews the movie participants in favor of new creatives, including veteran book writer Rupert Holmes and the songwriting trio Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, a.k.a. Holland/Dozier/Holland of Motown fame, who have reteamed for the first time in more than 30 years.

When asked about the similarities between the two femme movie-to-stage tuners, Holmes gives a mock double take. “They made a musical out of ‘9 to 5’?” he asks. “That was the one with three women? Hey, guys, we’ve got to cancel our show!”

Holmes is only slightly more serious when he adds, “Triumvirates are popular. I also hear there’s a ‘Three Musketeers’ out there.”

At least one of the “Club” scribes harbors a healthy dose of skepticism about his tuner’s source material. When offered the project four years ago, lyricist Eddie Holland told lead producer Paul Lambert that the 1996 film “lacks a certain sensitivity. It doesn’t have enough of the emotional thing.”

Although producers keep looking for the next big musical comedy, it’s actually musical romance that drives most longrunning shows. The same is true of the pop charts.

Eddie Holland ought to know, since he’s the one who wrote the words to “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love” and “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You” for, respectively, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye. For “Club,” he and his two collaborators don’t stint on love songs — songs with titles like “My Heart Wants to Try One More Time,” “Love for All Seasons” and “One Sweet Moment,” which begins with the line “I never thought you’d leave me.”

Where “9 to 5” is all about career, “Club” is all about women recovering from failed marriages and how at least one of them gets her man back. In some ways, it’s as if those Motown girl groups had grown up and were holding a reunion. Says Dozier, “The lyrics of our songs were painful, but the music was optimistic, with a beat you could dance to.”

And so it will be with “Club” onstage.

But are the emotions big enough for a Broadway musical? Holmes calls the characters’ feelings “gut-wrenching, a complete shattering of one’s self-esteem.”

If “9 to 5” replicated the movie right down to Dabney Coleman’s mustache and Dolly Parton’s big breasts, “Club” pulls a theatrical sleight of hand with its source material by not only having “Dreamgirls” vet Sheryl Lee Ralph sub for Goldie Hawn (Karen Ziemba and Barbara Walsh are the other wives), but also triple-casting Sara Chase as each of the three husbands’ respective girlfriend.

Or as Holmes explains it: “This musical is about people trying to pick up the ruin of their life. But it is also a comedy.”

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