By: Linda Buchwald
There is a moment in the second act of 9 to 5
where the character Judy Bernly, played by Stephanie J. Block, confronts her ex-husband with the song "Get Out and Stay Out." The number builds as the scenery fades away and she is left alone onstage belting to the rafters. The audience goes crazy with applause and cheers as she finishes. "From the second that I heard that song, I went, 'Oh boy. Did I get a gift,'" Block says.
Block speaks about the whole project with similar enthusiasm and gratitude, which comes from an admiration of the creative team and cast. She was asked to audition for what she thinks was the third reading in June of 2007. Director Joe Mantello, who had worked with her on Wicked
(Block played Elphaba on the first national tour and on Broadway), believed she had the comedic chops to pull off the role. "Joe hadn't seen any sort of comic timing from me, but really thought that I could come in and do it," she says. Allison Janney and Megan Hilty were also involved in that reading and all three were asked to be a part of the show in Los Angeles and Broadway, about a year before they were even scheduled to start rehearsals, which Block says is rare.
Block, who made up her mind that she wanted to perform as a girl of eleven in Orange County, California, relished the opportunity to develop the character of Judy. "Here in New York I'd been cast as these really strong purposeful angsty characters and Judy Bernley is just the opposite," she says. "She's really tender, she's fragile, she's lost, and it takes most of the play for her to find her purpose and her voice as a woman and I love that."
One of the challenges of musicalizing a popular film is that the roles have already been created once before. In the film, Judy Bernly was portrayed by Jane Fonda. Block remembers her mother's frequent laugh-filled viewings of the film. "I think it would be a disservice to the play and myself and Jane quite frankly if I just copied what she had done. Once I saw the movie and knew the kind of archetypes that these characters were and especially the character of Judy, I put it away, and started to create a Judy Bernly of my own," she says. Fonda herself came to see the show at the Los Angeles premiere and had nothing but kind words to say to Block about her performance.
Block's favorite moment in the show, aside from "Get Out and Stay Out," is one that she shares with her co-stars, Janney and Hilty, in which their characters smoke pot. "It truly makes us laugh every single night and it's different every single night," she says. "I adore and I so look forward to that moment."
The relationship between these three women is central to the show and Block says their bond happened almost instantly. "We love each other as people," she says. "It continues certainly off stage as well with what girls do. We shop together and we have meals together, and we laugh and gossip together, and it's just the greatest group of people. I couldn't love Allison and Megan more."
Though she was nominated for a Broadway.com award for best diva performance, Block seems to be anything but, happy to be part of a tight-knit 30-strong company. The entire cast performs the opening number and they have a ritual game they play onstage at places that involves squeezing hands and someone choosing a quirky word. "It's really fun and crazy and it probably sounds like a high school theater game to most people that are reading this article, but it really cheers everybody up," she says. "It just puts us in the right state of mind to do this wonderfully silly play."
Block is coming out of a grueling awards season that included the release and promotion of her new album of songs by some of her favorite composers, including a duet of "I Will Always Love You" with Dolly Parton, This Place I Know
. Though some actors might be tempted to switch to auto-pilot, Block says it's easy to keep the show fresh. "The audience's response is different every single night and with a comedy like this, stuff happens every single time that is completely different from the performance before."
With an upcoming concert at Birdland in the midst of an 8-show-a-week schedule, Block shows no signs of slowing down. Not that she'd want to. She says, "It is exhausting but it's also probably the most exciting time I've ever had in my life."
Stephanie J. Block will perform at Birdland on West 44th Street July 13 at 7 p.m.
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