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A sweet '9 to 5' gig

With her theatrical flair and big songs, it's a wonder the Backwoods Barbie hasn't promenaded down the Great White Way. For Dolly Parton, the wait's almost over.

September 21, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

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 divorcee 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 a 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.

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