Dolly Parton is at her most delightful when she’s laughing at her own jokes. Perched on a leather chair in the den of producer Bob Greenblatt’s gorgeous Craftsman home in the Hollywood Hills on a mild September day, the 62-year-old country music queen punctuated an interview about her work in “9 to 5: The Musical,” premiering this weekend at the Ahmanson Theatre, with zingers she’s admittedly used a hundred times before. She’d let forth a line -- “People always ask me if I’m offended by all the dumb blond jokes. I say no, because I know I’m not dumb, and I know I’m not blond!” -- and follow it immediately with a knowing peal of a giggle. The laughter was neither self-deprecating nor vain; it was her way of celebrating the joy of shtick.
Knowing a good punch line is just one talent that makes Parton inherently theatrical. There’s her look: the massive hair, superhuman hourglass figure and blindingly bespangled costumes, adding up to a cheerfully overdone femininity that’s made her one of the world’s most recognizable pop stars. There’s the act she’s been perfecting for upward of 40 years, a much-loved mix of corn pone and sugar. And finally, there’s her songbook, full of rich narratives like “Coat of Many Colors” and giant ballads like “I Will Always Love You.”
In light of all this, it’s almost shocking that Parton’s only now coming to Broadway, decades after conquering both Hollywood and the crossover pop charts. The highly anticipated musical, staged by Tony Award-winning director Joe Mantello, is scheduled to open on Broadway on April 23, 2009, at the Marriott Marquis Theatre.
Parton had been contemplating her own jump across the footlights when Greenblatt came to her with the idea of basing a musical on “9 to 5,” the 1980 screwball comedy in which she’d made her acting debut. “I was writing my life story as a musical,” she said. “Then Bob Greenblatt came to me, and he said, ‘We’re thinking about making ‘9 to 5' into a musical, would you be interested in doing the music?’ And I thought, ‘I’ve never done anything like that. I’d like to try.’ ”
Try she did. In Nashville, Parton met with Greenblatt and Patricia Resnick, the writer behind both versions of “9 to 5,” and went through Resnick’s script. Then Parton set off to compose. She spent a couple of weeks working “just off the top of my head,” and produced enough songs to record a demo that became the basis for the score.
Greenblatt and Resnick, both reached by phone, said the songs were pure Dolly from the start. But they weren’t pure country. Parton made one the title track of her new album, “Backwoods Barbie,” and it’s a vintage Tennessee tear-jerker custom-made for Parton’s “9 to 5" character, the secretary Doralee. But others are gospel-flavored showstoppers or novelty songs or cabaret-style standards.
Parton has crafted a collection of songs as varied as the show’s three heroines: the quintessential working mom Violet (played by Allison Janney, in a role originated by Lily Tomlin); the heart-rendingly clueless divorcée Judy (Stephanie J. Block in the Jane Fonda role), and the feisty “cowgirl” Doralee (now played by Megan Hilty, filling some pretty big “Double D’s,” as one Parton song calls them).
“Dolly agreed right away that it shouldn’t be a country sound,” said Greenblatt. “That’s not what the story or the characters require -- except for Doralee, which really is country. We always agreed that Dolly would write what she saw as pertinent to the characters. But we wanted to keep the essence of Dolly. The Dollyizing comes out in the cleverness of her lyrics, and in the spirit.”
Music and life à la Dolly
PARTON uses the term “Dollyizing” too, to describe not just what she’s doing to Broadway with this music, but to explain her career’s worth of uncontainable moves. Parton may be best known as a sort of living cartoon -- a description she embraces -- but behind the mask of makeup and plastic surgeries, she’s enacted remarkable changes for country music and for women in pop.
Though she wasn’t country’s first crossover artist, her hits add up to a sound that’s simultaneously down-home and far-reaching, setting the stage for blockbuster artists like Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood. The stylistic distance between her two signature songs, the twangy, hearth-worshiping “Coat of Many Colors” and “I Will Always Love You,” the No. 1 charting country anthem that went worldwide in Whitney Houston’s hands, defines Parton’s remarkable range. And by playing herself, as she says, in films and TV, from “9 to 5" to " Hannah Montana,” she has created an image of the Southern woman that’s both satirical and heartfelt.
“I listen to Dolly, and it’s musical Prozac,” said E! Entertainment senior editor Marc Malkin, who co-curated “Dollypop,” an art exhibition paying tribute to Parton at the World of Wonder Storefront Gallery in Hollywood through Oct. 8. “It cheers me up, all the songs that she has about just comin’ from nothing. There’s that song from her latest album called ‘Jesus and Gravity’ -- who else but Dolly Parton could get this gay Jew from New York City sitting in his car in the middle of L.A with his windows down, singing, ‘Jesus!’ ”
Parton’s Oscar-nominated title track for the film “9 to 5" epitomizes her knack for the universal. Its tent-revival-worthy melody and populist lyrics suggest country, but the original’s brassy arrangement gives it soul, and Parton’s lyrics take on The Man as forcefully as any classic-rock rabble-rouser. Both conversational and inspirational, “9 to 5" is a song Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin could love, and the perfect theme for a musical.
It’s always been central to the show Greenblatt began imagining about half a decade ago. “It’s as big as the movie in its own way,” he said. “It’s the big finale of Dolly’s concerts; it’s her biggest song, the best known throughout the world. So the show would already have this musical signature to it.”
Parton used her people skills to write the rest of the songs for “9 to 5,” letting the characters dictate their mood and structure, acting out the parts as she composed. She also used some tricks she’d picked up on the road. “Out of Control,” the number that has the office neophyte Judy battling a rebel copy machine, was inspired by Parton’s live act.
“I used to do a song onstage that I had written called “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” she said. “It’s a serious song, but I would say something to the effect of, ‘Would you like to hear it on thirrrrty-thrreeeeee [drawling], and then, how about 78 speed [speeding up]? Then I would say, I can even sing that song backward! And we would turn it around backward and sing it on 78 speed. So I remembered when I did that. Just goes to show you in your whole life, nothing’s ever wasted.”
An estimable co-worker
SUCH tricks are standard for the generation of Nashville stars to which Parton belongs. Parton learned many of them starring with the late country great Porter Wagoner on his syndicated television show in the 1970s. The pair had a famously tempestuous professional relationship, which also primed her to play the misunderstood Doralee in “9 to 5.”
“I went through a lot of things,” she said of her early years, before superstardom hit. “I worked with Porter Wagoner on his show for seven years, and he was very much -- I don’t mean this in a bad way, so don’t play it up that way -- but he very much was a male chauvinist pig. Certainly a male chauvinist. He was in charge, and it was his show, but he was also very strong-willed. That’s why we fought like crazy, because I wouldn’t put up with a bunch of stuff.”
She continued, “Out of respect for him, I knew he was the boss, and I would go along to where I felt this was reasonable for me. But once it passed points where it was like, your way or my way, and this is just to control, to prove to you that I can do it, then I would just pitch a damn fit. I wouldn’t care if it killed me. I would just say what I thought. I would do like the Doralee character and say, ‘I would turn you from a rooster to a hen if you don’t stop!’ ”
Wagoner and Parton had a bitter split after she left for bigger stages. They eventually reconciled, and she was at his bedside when he died last year at age 80. She remains close to his family and holds no grudge against him. After all, Wagoner recognized her talent, and not just her cup size.
“I’ve been through that with a lot of men,” she said of the harassment she suffered over the years. “And just because of the way you look too. Me looking cheap -- well, the way that I choose to look, and certainly when I first came to Nashville, I looked like an easy make. So a lot of men would sometimes think that they could get with that.”
Parton has spent a lifetime fending off unwanted passes (“Still do. Even at my age!” she declared with another giggle), but she’s long been known as one of pop’s most productive workers. That reputation is more than deserved, say her “9 to 5" co-creators.
“She is the least diva-ish diva in the entire world,” said Resnick, who’s worked with Parton not only on both versions of “9 to 5" but other projects, including the singer’s last major film, the 1992 comedy “Straight Talk.” “She’s generous and flexible, so easy and fun to work with. She also functions on very little sleep.”
Most important for the intense collaboration that goes into making a musical, Parton is a quick study. Musical director Stephen Oremus enthused about her ability to compose on command. Speaking by phone from the theater, where the show was in previews, Oremus recalled a particularly striking incidence of deftness.
“Because of the way the story was changing, it needed a new lyric here or there,” he said. “Dolly would be fine with it. She’d just say, play me the line. One time, I played it for her twice and she said, OK, I’m going to go to the ladies’ room, and I’ll come back with the line.’ She not only came back with the line; she had several. She said, ‘Here’s my favorite and here are two alternates in case you don’t like it.’ ”
For Parton, being flexible never meant relinquishing control. She’s spent her career defying people’s expectations and standing up for her due; it’s not for nothing that she’s earned the nickname “the Iron Butterfly.” She’s been actively involved in every step of the evolution of this Broadway-bound show, adaptable and friendly, but determined that the music remains her own.
Asked if she ever had problems with changes, she replied, “Well, if I did I would say so, because I had the right. Because it was my music. I had to have control of the music. They all respect that. But they also know I’m a smart enough girl, so that if somebody’s making it better than it was, I’m going to be the first to say, go with that.”
In turn, Oremus did his best to “Dollyize” the orchestrations. “We’re not trying to shoehorn Dolly into the Broadway idiom,” he said. “We use pedal steel and dobro, elements that Dolly loves. We’ve got some country fiddle in there. We’ve added little flavors that don’t come out specifically country but give it a sense of character.”
The result is a musical that fits in with the genre’s recent hits -- Greenblatt cites “Hairspray” and “The Producers” as inspiration, but it is also pure Dolly. Parton couldn’t be happier. Meanwhile, she’s on to her next round of projects, which includes more touring to support “Backwoods Barbie,” a possible dance music album and that still-unfinished stage production about her own life. Her future is open. Only one thing is for sure: Now that she’s spent some time behind the scenes of a major production, she’s ready to be back at center stage.
“I want to be out there,” she declared. “I love being an entertainer. My whole life is like, ‘See me, see me!’ I want to be seen, I want to be loved.”
“9 to 5: The Musical,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 19. $30-$100. (213) 628-2772.