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Wednesday, December 22,2010

Dolly Parton: Still on the clock

The country legend has a new title: Broadway composer

by James Sanford

 (To hear the audio version, click here)


Being a celebrity is not a 9 to 5 job, which is why most of them prefer to do their interviews late in the middle of the afternoon. But if you want to speak to Dolly Parton, you'd better be an early riser.

Her publicist had sent a message indicating Parton would like to chat at 8:50. "A.M. or P.M.?" I responded. "A.M." was the reply.


Parton couldn't even wait that long: At 8:45, she was already on the line from New York, and she wasn't yawning through her coffee, either.


"I love to get up early and get my work done and get all my paperwork out of the way so I can enjoy the rest of the day," she said, with that trademark twinkle in her voice.


Obviously, it's a plan that's worked for her. Since the mid- 1960s Parton has been a force to reckon with in the entertainment world, crossing over from country music to the pop charts, touring tirelessly throughout the decades, launching an amusement park that's about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, and building up a substantial resume of movie and television credits. She even found time to write the score for "9 to 5: The Musical," the stage adaptation of her wildly successful 1980 film with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The "9 to 5" tour comes to the Wharton Center tonight.


So who's had time for sleeping in?


Horatio Alger never wrote a more incredible rags-to-riches tale than Parton's life. Born in a cabin in rural Sevier County, Tenn., nearly 65 years ago, Dolly Rebecca Parton was the fourth of 12 children. Money was, as they say in Tennessee, as scarce as hen's teeth.


"My father was a farmer," she said, "and so we lived kind of back there in the mountains, and I mostly just kind of did that until I graduated from high school. I wrote my songs and I used to sing on local radio and television shows back up in the mountains there in Knoxville."


In her 1994 autobiography "My Life and Other Unfinished Business," Parton recalls being unable to afford real cosmetics and instead gussying herself up with Mercurochrome lipstick and ersatz rouge made of berry juice.  "If there's one positive thing about being poor, it's that it makes a person more creative," she writes.


The day after graduating from high school in June 1964, Parton grabbed her guitar, loaded her things into a cardboard suitcase and got on a bus to Nashville, determined to sell her songs. She had luck on her side.


"When I first moved to Nashville when I was 18, I got a job with a publishing company, writing songs," she said. "I started making $50 a week. That was my salary, so I never really had to work on a lot of other jobs."


Early on, she cut a few records targeted at the pop market: Tunes like "Don't Drop Out" and "Busy Signal" sound considerably more like Petula Clark than traditional Dolly Parton. But charming and catchy as the songs were, they did nothing to raise Parton's profile, so she kept working.


Along the way, she even picked up a bit of secretarial experience — sort of.


"When I first moved to Nashville, I had a neighbor that owned an advertising outdoor sign company, so I answered his phone some, so I claimed that I was a secretary, but I wasn't really. It was just a favor and I didn't get paid for it, but I did it enough to kinda get a feel for what it might be like. But I was sittin' at my desk writin' songs, answerin' the phone and writin' songs — furthered my own career, not his."


Parton's breakthrough year was 1967, which brought her a couple of hits on the country chart, "Something Fishy' and "Dumb Blonde," in which she warned the world, "Just because I'm blonde, don't think I'm dumb, 'cuz this dumb blonde ain't nobody's fool." A guest appearance on the popular "Porter Wagoner Show" led to a lucrative offer.


"'The Porter Wagoner Show' was the number one syndicated country show at that time in the nation," Parton recalled, "and, of course, that was my first big job when I first moved to Nashville. He replaced a girl singer (Norma Jean Beasler, known professionally as Pretty Miss Norma Jean) he'd had for years — he had to because she'd gotten married and moved away — so I got that job."


Wagoner, already a huge star, became a valuable mentor to Parton (he was the inspiration behind her signature song "I Will Always Love You," written shortly after she made the difficult decision to dissolve the partnership) and they had more than a dozen Top 10 successes on the country chart, including "We'll Get Ahead Someday," "If Teardrops Were Pennies" and "Please Don't Stop Loving Me."


Behind the scenes, however, things weren't always easy. In a 2008 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Parton admitted Wagoner was "a male chauvinist pig," adding "I don't mean this in a bad way."


"That's why we fought like crazy," she told the Times, "because I wouldn't put up with a bunch of stuff. 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 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."


After seven years, Parton split with Wagoner to concentrate on her solo career, which had taken off with "Joshua," "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors" and "Touch Your Woman." The break-up sent shockwaves through the country world and led to tensions between Wagoner and Parton, which were resolved before Wagoner's death in 2007.


Parton's larger than life look and "countrypolitan" glamour got plenty of attention, but much of her music was serious and topical. Her songs often addressed topics that most country songwriters of the time wouldn't touch, sometimes in surprisingly frank ways.


"Daddy
Come Get Me" is the plea of a woman locked up in a mental institution
by a heartless husband. In "Down From Dover," a pregnant girl prays her
lover will return soon, all too aware that soon "a tiny face will show
itself, 'cuz waiting's almost over."


"Evening
Shade," a track from her 1970 album "My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,"
paints a troubling picture of an orphanage run by a sadistic crone named
Mrs. Bailey, who "believed in lots of work with little play" and doles
out abuse on a regular basis. After one girl is beaten with a razor
strap for the crime of having wet her bed, the other kids conspire to do
away with the matron once and for all by locking her inside and
torching the place.


"Evening
Shade was burning, just like the hell it was," Parton sings in the
song's chilling final line: The children not only get revenge, they
apparently get away with it.


Parton
also had risque wit. In "Traveling Man," she sings in the first person
about being denied the love of her life by a mom who won't let her out
of the house. But instead of parents just don't understand, this is a
case of the daughter wising up too late. "That traveling man was a
two-time lover," Parton laments. "He took my love — then he took my
mother!"


In the late 1970s, Parton broadened her audience by
incorporating pop, rock and even disco into her repertoire: Her 1978
single "Baby I'm Burnin'" managed to score on the country and the club
music charts, while "Here You Come Again," "Two Doors Down" and
"Heartbreaker" all broke into the pop Top 40. Parton even managed to
take a ballad co-written by disco deity Donna Summer, "Starting Over
Again," to the top of the country charts in 1980.


But
Parton's next major artistic collaborator would come from far outside
the music world. Jane Fonda, who was about to produce and star in a
comedy about beleaguered office workers called "9 to 5," contacted
Parton, reportedly after seeing one of her album covers. According to a
1981 interview with People magazine, Fonda said she remembered thinking,
"Boy, does she ever look like everybody's idea of a secretary."


Casting
Parton was also a smart marketing strategy. "(Fonda's) line was, to me,
'Oh, and Dolly will get us the South,'" Parton said, with laughter.
"And I said, 'Well, the South, my butt! I'll get a few that ain't in the
South!' Anyhow, I think she was just trying to get it to where we would
be appealing to women from different places."


The
screenplay of "9 to 5" had Fonda's character, Judy Bernly, nearly
drowning in the secretarial pool, alongside capable but stressed-out
office manager Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) and executive assistant
Doralee Rhodes (Parton), who gets considerable exercise from being
frequently chased around her desk by her crass supervisor, Franklin Hart
Jr. (Dabney Coleman). Thanks to a twist of fate, the trio are presented
with an opportunity to take revenge on Hart.


It
wasn't the first time Hollywood had knocked on Parton's door. "I had
been offered other movies before, but I hadn't really been that
interested and I'd never done any acting. But that one was such a great
opportunity, I thought. Jane and Lily Tomlin were so hot at that time,
and even Dabney Coleman (who played the brusque boss) was hot. And I
thought, 'Well, how hard can this be? I've got all this support. If it's
a hit, I'll take credit -- and if it's a flop, I'll blame it on them.
Nobody knows me!'"


Parton had nothing to worry about. "9 to
5" was a runaway smash when it opened during the holiday season in
1980, grossing over $103 million (adjusted for inflation, that would be
approximately $271 million). It also established Parton as a bankable
box office name; immediately after "9 to 5" opened, Parton was signed to
star opposite Burt Reynolds in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas."


Parton
was grateful for Fonda's support and repaid the kindness a few years
later by leading the actress on a tour of Appalachia when Fonda was
researching her role as a Kentucky woodcarver in the TV-movie "The
Dollmaker."


Although
"9 to 5" addressed the issues of sexual harassment and discrimination
in the workplace with a humorous touch, Parton insists its messages did
not go unnoticed:


"I
really do think it did help a lot. I do think it brought a lot of
attention to (the topic). I'm still proud to be a part of it." It
also raised Parton's consciousness a bit. Fonda had extensively studied
the concerns of women in the business world, but Parton admits she
wasn't up to speed on the subject.


"At
that time, I was just interested in being in a movie and hoping I did
good," she said. "I didn't really understand or know what all the real
cause was until later on, what we were really sayin' and all that, that
it was a political statement. Knowing now, after years have passed, how
much good it really has done, I think it was great to bring awareness to
it -- and any change at all is better than none. There are still more
changes to be made, but I really do think that movie had a big impact to
make people start thinking."


There
would be many other films in Parton's future, some of them terrific
("Steel Magnolias," in which she blends in perfectly with Shirley
MacLaine, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis and a young Julia Roberts), some
of them dreadful ("Rhinestone," which gets off to a great start with her
performance of "Tennessee Homesick Blues" and immediately goes into a
tailspin as soon as co-star Sylvester Stallone makes his entrance) and
some unjustly overlooked, like the sweet-natured 1992 mistaken-identity
comedy "Straight Talk," in which she pretends to be a psychiatrist with a
radio call-in show.


Still,
when many people think of a Dolly Parton movie, it's "9 to 5" that
comes to mind, thanks in part to her memorable, million-selling theme
song.


"Actually,
that was part of my contract," Parton says of the tune. "I had told
Jane, 'I'm a singer-songwriter first of all, and I will be in this movie
if I can write and sing the theme song.'" When it was time to record
the final track, Parton brought in some back up. "I had all the girls
(who worked on the movie), all
the females — since it was all about the women — I had come down and
sing on it, like a sing-along, so they're all on the record. In
addition, I used real singers, too, to get the harmonies. But we just
had Jane and Lily and everybody singing on it, which was fun."


The
song resurfaces to open and close the stage version of "9 to 5." The
rest of the score was composed by Parton to fit the book by Patricia
Resnick.


Parton
said writing her first score for a musical was a challenge, although
Resnick, director Joe Mantello and producer Bob Greenblatt made it an
enjoyable learning experience.


"When
they first brought it up to me, I knew these characters so well that I
just wrote a whole bunch of songs in two weeks time and I sent 'em to
them, and said, 'Well here's what my idea is … ,' and we started working
from that," Parton said.


They liked all the stuff, but we certainly had
to tailor-make stuff, 'cuz I don't know anything about the stage, how
you have to have certain things for Act I and Act II and the timing and
transitions. So that's what they were great with, with me. So all they
had to do was tell me once, and I got it.""


While "9 to 5" did not take
Broadway by storm — the script has been revised and slightly revamped
for the touring production — the show earned Parton a Tony nomination
for best original score and two Drama Desk nominations, one for
outstanding music and another for outstanding lyrics.


"It
shouldn't surprise anybody she's taken so well to the stage: She's
always been a storyteller first and foremost," commented New York Post
critic Elizabeth Vincentelli. "Her countrified pop, enhanced by fiddle
and pedal-steel guitar, fits perfectly on Broadway. Of all the
mainstream artists who've tried their hand at show music in the past few
years, she may be the most convincing."


Associated
Press critic Michael Kuchwara agreed. "You won't mistake Parton's words
and music for the works of Stephen Sondheim, yet she has a simple,
direct way with lyrics and a beguiling sense of melody whether it's
country twang, gospel, rhythm 'n' blues, power ballad or sentimental
love song."


Parton
is also pleased with the results.


"It just seemed natural," she said.
"When they asked me to do it, I said, 'I don't know if I can do it or
not: I've never been asked, never tried it, but I'll give it a whirl.'
And I actually realized I had a knack for it, 'cuz it was just right up
my alley, that I could just write all this stuff, say what I wanted to
say, create stories for all these characters that I knew so well, as I
had memorized the script and knew everybody and had been in the movie
and had watched it for 25 years, at that time. So it was easy and fun
and I enjoyed gettin' the chance to do that.”





'9 to 5: The Musical'


Wharton
Center 7:30 p.m.


Wednesday, Dec. 15 and Thursday, Dec. 16; 8 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 17; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18; 1 p.m. and 6:30
p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19,


$32.50-$67.50


(800) WHARTON


www.whartoncenter.com




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