CHICAGO — Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede, the long-running, patriotic dinner show located just outside the gates of Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., is filled with graceful horses, frenetic lumberjacks, covered wagons, vistas of the Old South, and even racing pigs. But after the chicken dinner has been picked clean, the apple crisps have been served and the North-South rivalries have been re-fought one more time, the show reaches for its emotional climax. Lights dim, the mood turns reverent, and the stentorian host draws everyone's attention to just one flat spot in the massive arena.
Suddenly, there she is. Dolly Parton herself.
The pilgrims are satisfied. The collective sigh of satisfaction is audible. Parton is not, of course, really there in person. That would be impossible even for the indefatigable star (who turned 65 years old this month). The Dixie Stampede plays as many as 20 times per week in a mostly working-class town that loves Parton like no other (and has built an entire tourist economy on her image). And there are also sister Stampedes in Branson, Mo., and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
No, Parton appears on a big video screen. But — and you really have to be there to feel the singularity of the moment — that does not seem to matter. People well understand Parton can't be everywhere at once. They just want to see her face. It legitimizes their whole evening. It is comforting.
When "9 to 5: The Musical," the screen-to-stage Broadway musical closely based on the 1980 comedy starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and, of course, Parton herself appeared on Broadway in 2009, the producers were faced with the Dixie Stampede problem. The movie — with its beloved title song about tumbling out of bed to face the quotidian drudgery of office work — is inextricably linked with Parton, who wrote all the music and lyrics in the score and whose personality imbues the entire show.
Yet Parton could not, for obvious reasons, be there in person. And whereas Parton's fans in Pigeon Forge might have been happy with a video, that was deemed a tad too tacky for Broadway.
Not any more. The show did not do so well on Broadway. And the national touring production of "9 to 5" features Parton herself. A lesson has been learned from the Dixie Stampede.
"We felt people really wanted to see Dolly," said Mike Isaacson of Fox Theatricals, the lead producer of the show. And thus at the road version of "9 to 5: The Musical," which opened Jan. 19 (Dolly's birthday) in Chicago, Dolly they see.
"I am the face of the clock." said Parton, in a recent phone interview. "I talk about the 1970s over the vamp of '9 to 5.' I just like being able to welcome people to the show.”
A beloved figure in industry circles — where her hard work, humility, business smarts and multifarious creative talents are all widely respected — Parton is known for her hands-on involvement. Isaacson said Parton showed up for auditions for the tour, first terrifying the actresses who were called back and then putting them at ease.
"She'd just shout out 'Hi, I'm Dolly,' said Isaacson, re-creating the moment when Parton's hand rose and famous East Tennessee twang rang out through the rehearsal space.
"I've been working this '9 to 5' job for 30 years," Patron said, explaining her presence. "I feel like I know these characters by heart.”
Parton, of course, is one of those artists whom people think they know but is, in fact, difficult to categorize. "I really don't consider this a country musical," she said of "9 to 5." "The only country song in it is 'Backwoods Barbie.' Sure, there's a little Dolly flavor to all my music. But people had a preconceived notion that if I wrote it, it had to be country.”
Those were people, presumably, who were unaware that Whitney Houston's massive hit "I Will Always Love You" was penned and first recorded by Parton. Not only is country a malleable notion, but there is plenty of the big city in Parton.
The touring production, Parton says, has a "cozier feeling" than the Broadway prototype, which felt overblown and missing its roots. And the show, which is directed by Jeff Calhoun and now stars Dee Hoty, no longer has to worry about Broadway pundits. It is traveling to the heartland where it is more likely to reach its natural audience.
But if you talk to folks at the Dixie Stampede, and at Dollywood, they'll tell you that Dolly does show up quite regularly at those locales. She might not be able to be everywhere at once, but she knows how to choose her moments to appear in three dimensions.