Dolly Parton has made a career — and a fortune — out of being misunderstood, underestimated and misjudged. One of Parton's early hits, in 1971, was Coat of Many Colors, an autobiographical remembrance of her hardscrabble girlhood, the fourth of 12 children in a one-room cabin in the Tennessee foothills.
The song is about the time her mother sewed her a coat made from rags and the kids at school made fun of her. Parton's lyrics deftly tell the story.
"It was not a poor, pitiful me song: 'Oh, I was poor and you made fun of me,' '' Parton said in a phone interview from Nashville. "It was not that way at all. That song came from a place in my heart, and it was okay with me.''
Parton's latest project stems from another triumph in which she played Doralee Rhodes, the busty blond in 9 to 5, the 1980 movie that starred her, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as secretaries with a boss so awful that they want to kill him. She wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway musical made from the movie, which opens Tuesday in Tampa.
The theme song of the movie was one of Parton's biggest hits, and it gives the musical a bouncy, recognizable opening number. But the show also has several autobiographical songs in the tradition of Coat of Many Colors, such as Backwoods Barbie and Shine Like the Sun.
"Under this hair is a brain!'' Doralee declares in Shine Like the Sun. "Not that you ever care / And you only see tits, but get this / There's a heart under there.''
"What I love about Dolly is that she doesn't ask permission or forgiveness or justification from anyone for the way she looks,'' said Diana DeGarmo, who plays Doralee in the musical. "She just is who she is.''
DeGarmo, an American Idol finalist in 2004 who has been in several Broadway shows, including Hairspray, Brooklyn: The Musical and Hair, thinks Backwoods Barbie is a good example of Parton's songwriting. "It explains Doralee in three minutes,'' she said. "It's a perfect musical theater number, but it's also a perfect country song. It's rare that you find that at the same time.''
DeGarmo, 23, got her first real job as singer when she was 10 in a show at Parton's theme park, Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. She still remembers introducing herself to "Miss Dolly'' back then and the star's reply: "That's a mighty big name for such a little-bitty person.''
During rehearsals for 9 to 5: The Musical in Nashville, she stuck close to Parton. "She'd come in almost every day and bring the cast and crew fudge,'' DeGarmo said. "I just wanted to listen to how she talked, watch her mannerisms, because a lot of Doralee is Dolly.''
Parton, 64, once told an interviewer that she had written 3,000 songs. "I've written a few thousand more since then,'' she said this month. "They're not all good, though. I just write all the time.''
Many pop songwriters have tried their hand at musicals — Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few — and struggled with the form. Parton found it ''liberating'' from writing pop and country songs.
"For a song on the radio, you usually try to have a couple of verses, a chorus and a bridge, and you try to keep it under three minutes,'' she said. "But when I was writing for the stage, I realized I had so much more freedom and didn't have to follow a formula. I could write longer and I could write what the character needs to say.''
Parton has known the characters in 9 to 5 for a long time — "Thirty years I've been working this 9 to 5 job,'' she likes to say. She thinks a faux pax from her earliest involvement with the movie may have actually laid the groundwork for her doing the score of the musical.
In her memoir, My Life So Far, Fonda wrote that Parton arrived on the set of 9 to 5, her first movie, with not just Doralee's dialogue memorized but the entire script.
"That is absolutely true, and I was embarrassed about it when I found that it was a stupid thing to do,'' Parton said. "But I didn't know about movies. I thought everybody had to know everybody else's lines. I thought they just did it start to finish. I had no idea they shot out of sequence. I felt silly afterwards, but I'm glad I learned it that way, because I got to be so familiar with all the characters. When I started on the musical, I got my original script down and just wrote some songs that these characters would say.''
The movie 9 to 5 caught lightning in a bottle. It was the highest-grossing comedy of 1980, and Parton's theme song reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
"Everyone was all into women's lib, and Jane Fonda was smart enough to know it was just time for something like that,'' Parton said. "Plus you had Lily Tomlin, who was just as hot as could be at the time. Dabney Coleman (who played the sexist pig boss), same thing. Jane was very hot, and I was coming along. It was just a good combination of people, as well as a timely subject.''
9 to 5: The Musical ran less than six months on Broadway before it closed in September 2009. "We've all beat our brains out trying to figure that out,'' said Parton, who thinks the economy, then in deep recession, had something to do with the show not doing well at the box office. She also suggests that the usual underestimation of her talents had something to do with it.
"I didn't get crucified in the reviews,'' said Parton, whose score was nominated for a Tony Award. "I got some nice compliments, but I still wondered if maybe people weren't looking deep enough, and just seeing makeup and hair and thinking, 'What the hell is Dolly Parton doing writing a musical?' ''
The tour production, which opened in Nashville in September, was directed by Jeff Calhoun, who has quite a different sensibility than the director on Broadway, Joe Mantello. "It's not nearly so big and grandiose," Parton said. "I think the road version is more fitting. I think we've only lost one song from the Broadway show, and nobody's missed it so far.''
Calhoun is now directing Bonnie & Clyde, a musical by Frank Wildhorn (Wonderland) that opens Nov. 19 at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota.
One of the interesting things Parton has observed while working on the musical 9 to 5 has been the difference in performance styles between country and Broadway singers.
"On Broadway, usually those people are trained singers,'' she said. "They read music, and they perform with that in mind. With country singers, most of us don't know our a-- from a bucket. I know, for me, I just sing from my gut. I don't know one note from the other. I do not read music, and I think that's true of most country singers.''
Parton, who started out in the 1960s as a partner of Porter Wagoner, carried on the tradition of Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette with smash hits like Jolene, The Bargain Store, Here You Come Again, It's All Wrong, But It's All Right, Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You and Why'd You Come in Here Lookin' Like That.
These are all slickly produced records, but Parton said her priority is always to find the emotional heart of a song. "I think that's the difference between country and Broadway singers,'' she said. "We're just freer with it. Country music doesn't have to be as precise or as perfect. Country singers are more into just the emotions of a song and trying to get the story across.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.