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Dolly or Bust

To understand Broadway’s newest composer, you have to start in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But that’s not where you’ll really find her.


Like a backwoods Mary Poppins, Dolly Parton has just materialized at a recording studio in Manhattan and is distributing MoonPies and GooGoos—confections she brought with her on the bus from Nashville. She is greeting some of her collaborators on the musical 9 to 5, asking after their health and their people. Unlike a lot of celebrities, she seems to relish actual contact with humanity; she grew up so deep in the country that she’s “always tickled to death to see anybody!” To the strangers in the room, she offers a hand and a howdy to break the ice. The men, especially, need it. She is so small, and so large, and so unusual, that any way of reaching into her space uninvited seems like manhandling. It’s as if she were a prehistoric bird or the queen of England, with the additional concern that you might accidentally deflate something. I’ve heard of her grabbing a guy’s head and pushing it straight into her cleavage, just to put him at ease. (Can this possibly work?) Or she’ll say, “Aw, honey, don’t be nervous. I’m just a lady like everyone else.”

A lady, definitely. Like everyone else? Maybe in her unpretentious, self-mocking demeanor. But that has always been misleading, both in terms of the depth of her artistry and the artistry of her surface. First heard on the radio at age 11, she’d hardly have spent the next 52 years amplifying her outré image (and repeatedly entrusting herself to plastic surgeons) just to be ordinary. No, she is, as she says, “a poor candidate for espionage”: proudly alien-looking, beautiful and strange. She’s attired and made up, as always, to emphasize this: black tights with gold filigree; black suede stiletto boots; a black plunge-neck jacket with gold zippers, grommets, and drawstrings; bubblegum-pink acrylic nails about two inches long; and a tall white-blonde wig kept aloft by assorted trusses and diverters. Over the next few weeks, I will see her in many getups like this (she has hundreds custom-made each year, at a cost of several million)—all tight, all sparkly, all designed to focus attention on a woman who would otherwise be just a tiny 63-year-old: five foot one, with slim legs, pretty eyes, a waist no bigger than a vase, and that bust flowering out of it.

Being bountiful is clearly a top priority. She wants to provide everything people want from her at all times. Within that, she’s smart enough to find ways to ensure she gets what she wants, too. Making a stage musical of 9 to 5 was not her idea; it came from Showtime Entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, who’d bought the rights to the 1980 film about three underpaid women who take crazy revenge on their pig of a boss. But the opportunity to create a line extension for her worldwide brand, combined with the creative challenge of writing songs for Broadway, piqued Dolly’s interest. “I was just dumb enough to say yes,” she says—but not to sign on as a producer in an industry she knows nothing about. She’s fearless, not reckless.

And so she is with her time. While devoting several years to the musical, she has maintained her regular and profitable schedule of recording and touring. (Her 2007 and 2008 concert tours grossed more than $60 million—and she owns these operations outright.) Her daily schedule gives fair time to each of the many activities it includes but not a moment more, and even so, she is up half the night, thinking and writing and consulting with God. That attention to self-management applies at every scale; even now, in the recording studio, when a photographer starts snapping, she shines for the lens and all but stage-manages the setups. “Do you want some in the booth? Will the glare be too much? Some of me with Stephanie or with all the musicians?” But then she warns: “After you get the shots you need, we’ll run you outta here”—with a giddy laugh, as if being run outta here is the most fun anyone could have.

Stephanie is Stephanie J. Block, one of the stars of the show, which opens on Broadway next week. She plays Jane Fonda’s role: the dumped wife who has never had a job. (Allison Janney plays the Lily Tomlin role—the super-competent manager always passed up for promotion; Megan Hilty plays the bombshell who’s mistaken for a bimbo—in other words, Dolly.) And though Block has spent a lot of time around Dolly during the show’s development, today she looks awestruck anyway: She is recording her first solo album, and Dolly has agreed to sing backup on one track. As if that weren’t enough, the track is a cover of “I Will Always Love You,” probably the most famous of Dolly’s songs and certainly the most lucrative. At a time in Dolly’s career when she could still have used the boost and the cash, Elvis offered to record it—but only if she sold him half the rights. With precocious confidence in the value of her work, she refused. The lyric “We both know that I am not what you need” must have seemed especially painful under the circumstances, but as a result of that decision she has made millions of dollars in royalties on the song’s many incarnations, none of which improved on her 1974 original.

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