It started, as so many things do, with a YouTube video.
Since I prefer my country singers old enough to order their own drinks at the bar in all 50 states, when I saw the ominously-titled “Miley Cyrus covers ‘Jolene’” I confess I considered skipping it altogether. Boredom prevailed and it confounded my expectations by being really damn good. But then any well-written song can stand up to relentless cover versions, and ‘Jolene’ has had more than its share.
The vitriol in the comments isn’t surprising, but prevalent was the notion of this whippersnapper daring to touch the work of a great like Dolly Parton, the same reservation that I expressed before watching. Never mind that Miley had done the work a great service, which prompted a gleeful backlash because Dolly is in fact Miley’s godmother, and they’ve actually performed the song together. Talk about having the creator’s blessing.
That’s the thing about Dolly. As a performer, writer, and collaborator, she seems generous beyond measure. Oh, there’s no giving the goods away for free: she’s a businesswoman too, and decades of success speak to that in platinum, gold, and more Grammy nominations than you can shake a stick at. Somehow, despite all that, she still defers to her collaborators and co-stars with a generosity of spirit that many can’t seem to conjure, “I know there is a lot I don’t know and there are lots of folks who are much more talented than I am.” Perhaps it’s being so grounded that has kept her on top of her game for so long.
As 9 to 5: The Musical tours the UK this winter, I’m reminded of the show’s genesis in Los Angeles and then on Broadway. Despite the inclusion of two hits in the score–a reworked 9 to 5 with extra verses, and the irresistible Backwoods Barbie–Dolly sat down with Patricia Resnick and created a whole new musical. When lyrics didn’t work or key changes weren’t quite in range during rehearsals, the cast confided that Dolly would go off and rewrite then and there, usually with an instant and noticeable improvement.
Original stars – The West Wing’s Allison Janney, Smash star Megan Hilty and Broadway leading lady Stephanie J. Block – all raved about the inclusion and accessibility of working with Dolly, despite her superstar status. The show, alas, was the victim of the economic crash, a dash of Broadway snobbery and a seriously complicated set that kept weekly production costs in the super-high range. Thankfully those issues have been ironed out as the show plays to regional audiences all over Britain, week after week.
With a company led by Bonnie Langford and Natalie Casey (Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) this may be a production reduced in scale but not in heart or enthusiasm. If you know the original movie then you know the plot, and perhaps we should all take a moment to sigh that Mr. Hart’s repugnant brand of sexism still isn’t entirely gone from the daily working lives of women, no matter the leaps and bounds we’ve made for equality so far.
And it’s damn good fun. While we need the tragedies like Les Mis to sob our hearts out over, Dolly has given us a musical that will make you want to dance in the aisles, without shoehorning an awkward plot around songs that don’t entirely fit (looking at you, Mamma Mia).
It’s no surprise though, because quality through glitz and glamour is what Dolly does best. She might own a huge chunk of Tennessee in her own right these days – trip to Dollywood, anyone? – but she manages to never entirely lose the ‘down home’ country authenticity that brought her to the limelight in the first place.
Yes, like the Great Wall itself, Dolly might just be a true wonder of the world. You know about the plastic surgery and the jangling chords, but don’t forget the literacy programmes and conservation efforts in her native Tennessee. She still owns her own record label – Blue Eye Records – and retains the publishing rights and copyrights to a recording catalogue that would make any accountant’s eyes water.
So let’s celebrate a talent that can’t be constrained to one genre, medium or country. Let’s enjoy the wigs that are a feat of structural engineering, and the makeup that may well be applied by the handful, and the cleavage that (and I haven’t confirmed this with NASA) may even be visible from space. As she says, “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”.
9 to 5 The Musical is touring through July 2013, various UK locations.