Catching up with Dolly Parton

Maybe the Big Apple was trying to tell Dolly Parton something when she visited it for the first time.

NEW YORK — Maybe the Big Apple was trying to tell Dolly Parton something when she visited it for the first time.

She was 18 and on a senior trip with high-school classmates. The Tennessee mountain gal hit the streets of Broadway and couldn’t escape one particular show sign. It was everywhere she looked.

“It was for Hello, Dolly!,’” Parton recalled recently. “Everywhere we looked (the signs read), Hello, Dolly! And I said, ‘Well, it’s like they were welcoming me to town.’ “

Almost 45 years later, Parton finally felt the city’s embrace. As the musical force behind the Broadway version of 9 to 5, she has entered, perhaps, her strangest territory to date: the glitz and glamour of musical theatre.

Although the show’s Broadway run wraps up next month, 9 to 5 is hardly history. Starting in September 2010, the musical will travel from city to city as a road show, which many industry observers suspect will make it more profitable. On the road, 9 to 5 could run for years.

Early in its run, the show earned 15 Drama Desk nominations, more than any other musical this year. It also garnered Parton the most unlikely citation of her storied career – a Tony nomination in May.

She wrote more than a dozen tunes for 9 to 5, and the soundtrack was recently released on her record label.

Actress Megan Hilty, who plays busty secretary Doralee (the role Parton played in the film 9 to 5), says Parton is a unique voice in the musical-theatre world. Her perspective as a Broadway outsider is good for the genre.

“She’s much needed in musical theatre,” says Hilty, whose extensive stage resume includes a run on Wicked.

“She’s a genius when it comes to songwriting. Country music, in general, because it is based on characters, is a good basis for musical theatre. Dolly is able to crawl into each character’s skin because of her years of writing country music.”

Parton secluded herself to concentrate on the personality of each character. She says it was particularly difficult to find the personality of overbearing boss Franklin Hart (Marc Kudisch). She could identify with the female characters, given the sexism she saw in Nashville during the early days of her career.

“I had to think big,” Parton says of writing the music. “It wasn’t something I was used to doing. It opened a door for me (creatively). It made me think (in terms) of a big presentation.

Parton also ended up being the show’s biggest cheerleader.

She attended a month’s worth of shows while it was in previews. Backstage, she would encourage the actors and greet them as they came offstage, Hilty says.

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