The Legendary Dolly Parton and the Film "Little Women"
Legendary entertainer Dolly Parton sits down for an exclusive interview on her career and new musical," Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol," at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, Plus, a look at the latest film adaptation of the novel, "Little Women."
>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,
WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture
from around the region and the nation.
I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
the one, the only Dolly Parton.
>> I've just lived with rhymes in my head and music,
everything I hear, even a rhythm,
somebody walking around clicking on a... you know,
in the kitchen, cleaning dishes,
I always got to pick up on some sort of a rhythm.
>> BOWEN: Then Greta Gerwig has big designs onLittle Women,
her new film starring Saoirse Ronan.
>> And I think she saw beyond even where we are
and she imagines something that was... not only feminism,
but egalitarianism in the true sense
where everyone's honored, and no one's left out,
and there isn't a hierarchy.
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, Dolly Parton.
This is a Dolly moment,
or the Dollyverse as some are calling it.
The singer recently celebrated 50 years of performing
at the Grand Ole Opry.
She's hailed asthe person who can unite the country
in these divided times.
And she's doing it all in the holiday spirit.
She's written the music and lyrics
for "Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol"
now playing at the Emerson Colonial Theatre.
It reimagines the Dickens classic,
swapping London for a poverty-stricken
Tennessee coal-mining town in the 1930s.
>> ♪ Wish for Christmas
♪ Let me see
♪ Behold beyond belief
>> BOWEN: Just before that show's official opening night,
we had the only sit-down interview with Dolly Parton.
We talked about her early Christmas memories,
the Parton songs shesays are herfavorites,
and how she feels about all the attention now coming her way.
Dolly Parton, thank you so much for joining us,
it's such a pleasure to be with you.
>> Well, thank you for having me.
I'm anxious to talk about
everything you want to talk about.
>> BOWEN: Well, what was the place of, of music
and Christmas in your family when you were growing up?
>> Well, actually, our music was mountain music,
bluegrass music, a lot of the same music
that actually we have here in the show.
All the songs that talked about the, you know,
the Christ birth and all that,
and all the favorite Christmas songs that we love,
like "Jingle Bells."
Even in your country versions,
you know all the Christmas songs.
But with our music, in general, we... it was all country based.
>> BOWEN: Well, as you look at, at the story of
A Christmas Carol, which is so universal,
how did you find your way into it from what you knew
from, from growing up and where you lived?
>> Well, everybody knows the story of Scrooge.
And everybody knows a Scrooge!
(both laughing) And we knew one, too.
But actually when I got involved in the show
it was because of Paul Couch, who's producing the show,
and he was our entertainment director
for many years at Dollywood.
He came to me with this idea some years ago and said,
"Would you be interested in writing the story of Scrooge?
And let's make it kind of an Appalachian Mountains story."
It's certainly something I could relate to,
with the poor people in the mountains and all that.
And so it just went on from there,
and now here we are, seeing another dream come true.
>> BOWEN: Well, what about the story of redemption?
How did... how did you... how did that marinate with you
as you were writing the music here?
The story of redemption is always good,
you want to write all those songs about people
and how they are the way they are,
and why they are that way, 'cause they need...
No matter how people are,
something's usually caused them to be bad,
if they are, like even Scrooge.
And that was one of the things I loved about our version of it,
is we told how Scrooge got to be the way he was.
In, in our version, it's about the Appalachian man
and that he was an old...
a coal miner, he owned all the mines and he was just...
but he didn't have a good life growing up either.
>> It's an excuse for forgiving things that are unforgiveable.
For buying things you can't afford.
And for pretending the world
ain't a miserable and hard place.
It's a load of sentimental claptrap.
>> So we kind of wanted to show all that and how he got to,
you know, to actually redeem himself at the end of the show,
and I really enjoyed writing all those songs.
There's... the bad stuff and the good stuff.
And so I love getting into the characters and I've...
I just become whoever I'm writing about as a writer.
I was Scrooge a lot of the time,
and I was down in his old bad self,
but I also understood how he wanted to be better
and actually became better.
So, I just love the story of redemption,
and where everything turns out good in the end.
>> BOWEN: Well...
You just described something-- I wonder how you write.
And do you get into characters,
I mean, how do you find your way into stories?
>> Well, I read this story, I know what the stories are.
As a for instance,
when I wrote the musical "9 to 5" for Broadway,
I got into, the same way I got into Scrooge,
I got into Mr. Hart,
cause that character was like a mean old character.
But I've just become, you know, I thought,
"Well, I've got to write really bad stuff.
I've got to really write from a mean old place."
So, and the only way to do that, you just kind of have to
get inside that character.
And but I was little t... you know, Tiny Tim as well.
>> ♪ Those treasures are so glorious ♪
♪ That I can see but I can't touch ♪
>> I was all the people in this story
of this "Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol,"
and all the ghosts, and all the people that were coming back.
I just kind of take it on and just kind of put myself in that,
you know, in that character and, and that's fun for me.
Because I know I... when I write, I act it out, too.
When I first did the musical "9 to 5,"
I'd never done anything for stage.
And I realized how much I loved it as a writer.
That you really could become the character, and you...
you didn't have to worry about it being on the radio,
you didn't have to worry about
it being a minute or two, or two minutes and,
you know you, you didn't have to chop it up.
You could just say what you wanted to say
until you said what that character needed to get across.
So I loved that,
so I really have enjoyed writing for the stage.
>> BOWEN: Moving away from the stage, for your songs,
do you, do you put yourself in a position to create
or do you wait for it to come to you?
>> I'm just...
I just live with rhymes in my head.
And music, everything I hear, even a rhythm,
somebody walking around clicking on...
you know, in the kitchen, cleaning dishes,
I always got to pick up on some sort of a rhythm.
So I just actually am, am musical like that,
and I always have had the gift of rhyme.
I love it when people come to me with a story to say,
"Will you write this?"
And, and when I did the "9 to 5" and when I did the Christmas...
"Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol,"
you know when people expect you to do something,
you, you try to rise to the occasion.
When you're left on your own, I'd just write what I feel like.
But when you're commissioned to do something,
you really have to think about what they need,
what the character needs to be, what you really...
You know what's commercial,
or what would be fun for the audience,
you really have to consider a whole lot of things
when you're writing for stage that you don't have to
when you're working, just making a record.
or something for radio.
>> BOWEN: Do you feel pressure, do you put pressure on yourself?
>> Yeah, I put pressure on myself to...
but not unnecessary pressure.
It just makes me want to work hard.
There's time limits.
It makes me think, "Well, I have to get up and really go to work.
"I can't slouch around here.
I'm on their time more than mine now."
So I really take all that into consideration.
But it really kind of gives me a kind of a, a kick in the butt
a little bit more than if I was just waiting around to do it
my own way in my own time.
And in a way that's good because I want to... people to know
I'm a serious person about my work,
and that I'm going to get the job done
if I told you I would do it.
And not only do I want to get the job done,
I want you to be proud of it,
and I want you to be proud of me.
So it really has a lot of elements to it.
But it's all good!
>> BOWEN: Thinking about where you live and...
one of the places you live and where you grew up,
what place does place have in your songwriting?
Do you have to be out in nature?
>> No, I don't.
I live inside my head and inside my memories.
Thank God for memories.
That's... there's an old song
called "Precious Memories, Unseen Angels."
♪ Precious memories
♪ How they linger
And there are so many unseen angels that kind of walk through
my mind all the time.
It takes me back to my childhood.
So I really have to do
is to really just kind of sit and concentrate.
And I can go anywhere in my imagination,
and in my memories, and in my mind.
Now I do love it...
when I get a chance, especially when I was writing for this.
I did spend a lot of time on a lot of these songs
when I was in my old mountain home.
I go up and visit my kinfolk, so some of these songs
were written back in my old home place.
And I purposely did that.
Because I live in Nashville now,
but I still go home to east Tennessee,
which is 200 miles east, up there to my old country home.
And so, a lot of these Christmas things were,
were written for... from there.
>> ♪ Appalachian snowfall
♪ Calling out to one and all
♪ In spite of all our troubles
♪ It holds enchantment still, always will ♪
>> BOWEN: You must have given thought over the years
at how this comes to you,
and you've written more than 5,000 songs at this point.
Well, I don't really count them.
People ask me all the time, I say "Well I'm...
"I've been writing since I was seven years old.
I mean, seriously writing songs."
And I write all the time, so I said I must have
three, four, five million songs by now-- not all of them good.
I've got probably three good ones and...
But I just love to do it,
because I'm from a musical family,
all my mother's people were very musical.
So I grew up with everybody playing instruments,
and singing and writing songs, singing in the church.
So music is just a huge part of my whole being.
And so, it's easy for me to write, and I love doing it.
But it's not a, it's not a hard process for somebody
that just is born to do it.
>> BOWEN: What does the expression part of it
mean for you, to be able to tell these stories,
and, and as you just mentioned,
take other people's stories and be able to tell them.
>> Well it's fun, actually, I, I thank God a lot.
You know when I... I'll be writing something
and I'll think, "Well, thank you!
I'd have never thought of that on my own!"
I kind of feel like I have
like some help from out there, you know?
But it does make me feel good and proud of myself
when I come up with something that people seem to enjoy.
And that I feel like that I can do more
than just write for myself.
That I can write for other people as well,
and that's been fun for me writing for this
"Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol,"
and taking all those characters
that everybody already knows and loves,
and they know all the songs that people do,
and to just do your own take on it.
It's just kind of fun, it's just kind of like
repainting a, a famous picture
or adding your own little deals to it,
but kind of making it your own and, and making it...
For me, I knew these people, I know how we grew up,
and this was... this, this particular story
is based in... during the Depression.
Our whole life was depression as far as like how we, you know,
grew up, not having money or things that, you know,
that you could buy at the store.
So we learned to live off the land, we learned to...
You know, for Christmas, you know we had homemade toys,
and our mom and dad would make their things,
and we, we were lucky if we got a store-bought toy.
But we had so much joy, and so much fun,
making things for each other,
and for our neighbors and, and making our tree
and all that.
So it's kind of the same with me
as putting this whole show together.
>> BOWEN: Do you remember, the first time going back
to when you were seven-- as you just mentioned-- what...
Did you feel like something cracked open for you
when you understood that you had this ability?
>> Well, actually, I wrote my first song when I was five.
I... before I could write or even knew my mama kept it,
it was about a little cob doll.
But I learned to play guitar, I started playing guitar,
when I was seven.
And so after I learned those chords on the guitar,
I would hear everybody sing,
and talk about stories about the war,
talking about things that happened.
Mama used to sing all those old songs
from the old world brought over,
you know, from England and Ireland and Scotland,
all those great old songs
like "Banks of the Ohio" and "Knoxville Girl."
>> ♪ Go there, go there, you Knoxville girl ♪
♪ With dark and rolling eyes
>> I would just kind of remember all that, and then tag stuff
to what we were living.
So I was able to rhyme stuff,
so I would just write about our life, and my life,
and the things I saw around me, and would just create stuff,
and it was a joy for me.
>> BOWEN: You've talked a lot about fun, but how do you know
when you have a lyric that you've just...
that you really have hit it.
That... something so poignant.
>> Well, you don't really know.
If everybody knew what made a hit record,
we'd all be rich and famous, wouldn't we?
Every singer and writer.
But there are times when you write songs
and you, you really feel like that you really
wrote something good.
For instance like, "I Will Always Love You,"
when I wrote that song, I...
It came from my heart,
but I also knew that that was a good song.
Simple, but heartfelt, and I knew it had a melody
that you could sing it little or you could sing it big,
it's the kind of song you can sing emotional.
♪ And I
♪ Will always love you
When I recorded that particular song, you know I had it...
you know it was just a real heartfelt song for me,
but then when Whitney Houston did it,
she was able to take that same melody,
and then take it so many places that I...
my voice wouldn't even go there,
or I wouldn't even think to do it.
>> ♪ And I
♪ Will always love you
>> So, I... you know when you write a song like "Jolene"
if you enjoy 'em.
But then you'll write a song like "Coat of Many Colors,"
which is my personal favorite.
♪ In my coat of many colors
♪ Mama made for me
But you don't know if other people will relate
to that or not, because it's so personal.
They did, of course, because of me.
But you ne... you never know how other people
are going to take to the song, you just know, in your heart,
if you personally like it.
Or you think, "Yeah, I think people..."
You know, you kind of go by-- like a "Jolene," for instance.
That's such a singable song,
every garage band in the world...
It's been recorded more than anything I've ever recor...
written, believe it or not, more than any song,
even "9 to 5,"
"Jolene" has been recorded.
♪ Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene ♪
♪ Please don't take him just because you can ♪
'Cause it just says the same thing over and over,
♪ Jolene, Jolene Jolene, Jolene ♪
How hard can it be?
So you just kind of... you just hope for the best
when you're writing, and sometimes, like you said,
you, you just know when you've hit on one,
and you hope... you hope it sticks.
>> BOWEN: Do you ever take it... do you take it personal,
do you care what people think when you put the music out?
>> Well, yeah, I care.
You, you always care, you hope everything you write's a hit.
You know how you always love all your kids
and some are prettier than others,
and some of them do better than others.
But they're all personal to you, all my songs are personal.
But you... I'm not offended if they're not all hits.
I'm always curious to see what, what's going to hit.
Some of my very favorite songs
have never been the biggest hits.
They've been album cuts, songs like "Down from Dover."
♪ I know this dress I'm wearing ♪
♪ Doesn't hide the secret I have tried concealing ♪
"Gypsy Joe and Me," songs that people have never even heard.
♪ We never did allow no roots to grow beneath our feet ♪
And so it's really, um... to me, I, I just...
it depends on how I feel about it, they're all hits with me.
'Cause they're mine, they're my kids.
I always say my songs are my kids and I expect them
to support me when I'm old.
And some of 'em have!
>> BOWEN: I think they have. >> Yeah.
>> BOWEN: And finally, you're having a moment right now,
there's the podcast, there's the, the Dollyverse
that everybody talks about.
I think you're giving Oprah a run for her money,
because people talk about you as an angel, a saint,
I heard you say "Dolly Mama,"
that's what your family calls you?
>> Yeah my friends call me the Dolly Mama,
and my, my brothers and sisters,
a lot of them just kid me about that.
But I've been around a long time.
I think people relate to me, I feel like a...
like a member of their family, like Aunt Dolly.
Or like an older sister.
'Cause people kind of grown up with me,
and their kids have grown up with me.
I've been around a long time doing a lot of different things,
I've been in the movies, been on television,
even been in little shows likeHannah Montana.
So I have a younger following, too.
And I work a lot with children
through the Imagination Library.
So I just love people,
I accept everybody for who and how they are.
Wherever they are.
>> BOWEN: But do you feel it's different?
It's more than just being around, I think.
Lots of people have been around for a long time.
>> Well, I try to put something good in the world.
I try to... I try to let my little light shine,
I try to find the God light in everybody else,
and try to connect myself to that.
Because I just think there's goodness in everybody.
And I try to play to that.
And I try to... every day I ask God to let me shine and radiate
with his light, and let me be a blessing to the world,
and to glorify him somehow.
And that's how I go about my day and have fun doing it, yeah.
>> BOWEN: Well, Dolly Parton, thank you so much
for speaking with us, it's been a pleasure!
>> Well, thank you. Thanks.
>> BOWEN: Next, the newest film adaptation
of Louisa May Alcott's classic novelLittle Women
opens on Christmas Day with a star-filled cast
including Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep.
While still set in the mid-1800s,
it crackles with a 21st century energy.
And that's all by design,
says the film's writer and director, Greta Gerwig.
They are theLittle Women--
roamers, dreamers and adventurers.
And for 150 years, they've had their own agency.
>> I'm working on a novel.
It is a story of my life, and my sisters.
>> Make it short and spicy.
And if the main character is a girl,
make sure she's married by the end.
>> Ow! Jo!
>> I might never make a more personal movie than this.
This is my inner landscape...
>> BOWEN: Greta Gerwig is the writer and director
and she says the book has been part of her life
almost as long as she can remember.
>> This is the thing that I felt like...
not only empowered me and inspired me,
but k... allowed me to be.
A girl trying to sell a story
and figuring out how much she needs to compromise to sell it?
(laughing): I mean, boy, do I know that!
>> BOWEN: In 1868, Louisa May Alcott
wrote the story at the behest of her publisher.
She titled the book Little Women,
and it was an immediate bestseller.
It's never gone out of print
and has inspired countless adaptations in theater,
film, and television.
But Gerwig doesn't want this film to feel like a classic.
(classical music playing)
>> I very much wanted it to be...
embodied and, and moving at the speed of life.
I didn't want it to be nailed to the floor.
I didn't want to feel like
the lines were embroidered on pillows-- even though they are.
I wanted the... that same language
to come out of their mouths like they just thought of it.
>> BOWEN: Gerwig's is the seventh
film adaptation of the story.
Laura Dern plays Marmee, matriarch of the March family.
>> You remind me of myself.
>> But you're never angry.
>> I'm angry nearly every day of my life.
>> BOWEN: Every generation it seems, finds it imperative
at some point to find their way into this story.
Why do you think that is,
what makes it so universal and that imperative at some point?
>> Well, I appreciate that you say it's imperative,
because it is to us.
There still has been a stigma as thoughLittle Women
was a... an American novel,
classic American novel for girls.
As we... kind of reinvent a look at it,
at this moment, in 2019,
I think it is relatable to everybody.
Because it is about a search for self.
>> BOWEN: Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March,
a burgeoning writer and Alcott's alter ego,
who harbors a thoroughly independent spirit.
>> Women... they...
they have minds, and they have souls,
as well as just hearts.
And they've got ambition, and they've got talent,
as well as just beauty.
And I'm so sick of people saying that, that love is just
all a woman is fit for, I'm so sick of it!
>> BOWEN: For Jo, Louisa May Alcott
or Jo the character,
where did you find yourself going for...
to find your character in the film?
>> More so Louisa.
Because her mother was like her soulmate,
and she just adored her sisters.
But they had a very, very, very hard life.
They were very, very poor.
The kind of battle of her life was to write
in order to help her family to survive.
And I think I needed to understand that
in order to bring Jo to life
in the way that we really wanted to.
>> I believe we have some power over who we love,
it isn't something that just happens to a person."
>> I think the poets might disagree.
>> Well, I'm not a poet.
I'm just a woman.
>> BOWEN: For this adaptation,
Gerwig flipped the novel's timeline.
We meet the women before they are little.
Their younger selves appear in flashbacks.
Florence Pugh stars as Amy,
the indolent child who grew up to be an accomplished artist.
>> BOWEN: What is it to be an adult,
but also be so mindful of
who you were as a child?
>> Oh, my goodness, that's a good question.
I don't know, I think specifically for Amy
she has a lot to prove.
And I think, especially her journey over to Europe,
there's a lot that she knows she has to do,
and there's a lot that she knows she has to learn.
And it's a way for her to grow up away from the family.
I don't think she could have become the woman that she was
if she had been around her sisters.
I think she needed to be away from home, she needed to...
um... I suppose, fend for herself,
and learn and, and fall in love.
>> BOWEN: The film was shot in Massachusetts,
including Concord, in close proximity
to Alcott's real-life home, which today is a museum.
>> We were in Concord.
Amy Pascal, the producer, had this massive house
that we would go to every day.
And we would drill our scenes, because the dialog had to be so,
sort of, accurate and, and really kind of,
you know, in our bones.
>> BOWEN: For director Greta Gerwig,
that authenticity and sense of place allowed her to create
a story that felt as natural as the New England landscape.
What is having that, that sense of place do
to being able to create this story?
>> Oh God, well everything--
I mean this, this place is magical.
The, the writers that have been here,
the history of this place.
The fact that the Revolutionary War started on the North Bridge,
the sense of the country as being something
that's an act of imagination, and that you create it again
new and better with every generation
is something that I think is important to reconnect to.
>> BOWEN: Now a lot more holiday happenings
and a dollop of Shakespeare in Arts This Week.
Handel + Haydn Society presents A Baroque Christmas Sunday.
The group decks Jordan Hall
with the sounds of period instruments.
Monday, travel back to the 1930s
withThe Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre.
Blending dance, music, and storytelling,
the show moves from Appalachia to California dreamin'.
Spend Christmas Eve with Keith Lockhart
and the Boston Pops on Tuesday.
And, somehow, Santa always interrupts his sleigh ride
for a stop at Symphony Hall.
Thursday, if the spirit still moves you,
move yourself to the Wang Theatre
whereIrving Berlin's White Christmas
continues its run.
Friday, Actors' Shakespeare Project
offersThe Complete Works ofWilliam Shakespeare (abridged),
including a 42-second Hamlet.
Don't tell your English teacher.
And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
Next week, a full roster of museum exhibitions
to fill your holiday break,
including a tour of the newly expanded Peabody Essex Museum.
What's it like to see it realized?
>> It is going to be a dream come true.
>> BOWEN: And we'll check in with Superman--
taking flight at the Addison Gallery of American Art.
>> They stand as American symbols for patriotism, um...
for caring for the vulnerable,
for standing in for the oppressed.
>> BOWEN: Until then, I'm Jared Bowen,
and for all of us here atOpen Studio,
we wish you the happiest of holidays.
And as always, you can visit us online
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter
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