The fingernails of Dolly Parton have a divine decadence all their own — one inch long and coated in cherry red. "They're false," she says before you get a chance to, "like everything else." She flicks off that self-deprecation with a good-old-gal guffaw, and you suddenly realize that you're in the presence of what Oscar Hammerstein II once identified as "a girly, womanly, female, feminine dame" — all five feet of her, packed and stacked to overflowing and indelibly dotted with sequins and rhinestones.
She is the Marilyn Monroe of country music, but somehow the nails don't get the press that the rest of the package does. And they should. It was the nails that got her a toehold on Hollywood, and now, 30 years later, it's doing the same on Broadway.
Parton just punched in here with 9 to 5, a musical of her first movie. "That was the first time I'd ever even seen a movie made, much less been in one." She and Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin were white-collar musketeers who whittled their sexist boss (Dabney Coleman) down to a nub. Now, in its second coming, at the Marquis Theatre, it's Megan Hilty, Stephanie J. Block and Allison Janney who do the deed to Marc Kudisch.
The deal-maker that pushed Parton over the edge into movies was the stipulation that she get to write the title tune. "I didn't know what I'd feel. I wanted to just do it as the days went by, based on things that happened. Since I couldn't have my guitar on the set, I wore these acrylic nails that make a percussive sound." She brushes the nails against each other; it's the sound of castanets and, she thinks, typewriters. "I'd just walk around, see the office space, the adjacent kitchen, the coffee cups. It was about coffee all the time, and that was my first verse: 'Tumble outta bed / And stumble to the kitchen / Pour myself a cup of ambition.' Then I'd go home, get my guitar and work out the music. When I finished, I got Jane, Lily and all the girls who worked behind the scenes to sing on the real record, and I got to play my nails, too."
This zippy blend of caffeine and acrylic produced a raucous, rabble-rousing anthem for the female work force of the time, and its hard-edged jubilation still has enough relevance for producer Robert Greenblatt and director Joe Mantello to take it from the top again as a piece of theatre. Parton's title song earned the film's only Oscar nomination, losing to another title tune — Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford's "Fame," which has already come and gone as a stage musical. Now, it's Parton's turn at bat.
She has augmented the original title tune with 16 other new songs, custom-fitted to characters she has known since 1979. The Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle voted it their Best Score after the Ahmanson Theatre tryout last year and cited Andy (In the Heights) Blankenbuehler's dance-moves to her music as Best Choreography.
On May 5, 9 to 5 was nominated for four 2009 Tony Awards, including a Best Score nod for Parton's music and lyrics.
"When Bob Greenblatt asked me to write this and told me Patricia Resnick was writing the book again, I thought, 'Well, I know these characters like they're my own family,' so I just started writing things I thought would fit their personalities and sent them to Bob and said, 'Am I anywhere in the ballpark of the style that's for Broadway?' because this was all new to me. And he said, 'Oh, yes, it's the right direction.' When I got Pat's book, I looked to see where they needed songs. I was so familiar with the piece it was natural for me. I was surprised myself I could do it."
For Doralee Rhodes, the character Hilty inherited from Parton, she wrote something from the heart. "It's about people judging you by how you look. The way I look is just a country girl's idea of glam. In 9 to 5, they make fun of Doralee because they think she looks like a tramp and has to be sleeping with the boss, who pretends she is." The song is "Backwoods Barbie," she says, "and it truly fits Doralee's character. We released it as a single on Barbie's 50th birthday. It couldn't have been better timing. Me and Barbie look pretty good for our age — I'm a bit older — and we're both made out of plastic."