Charles Dickens’ holiday classic was written 175 years ago in England, but Dolly Parton — whose adaptation, “Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol,” will have its world premiere Saturday in St. Paul — has no problem relating to it.
“Mama used to tell us that story, I think. She probably heard it her whole life, too,” says Parton, who grew up with 11 brothers and sisters in rural Tennessee.
“You can’t live in the mountains and not hear all the old ghost stories you do as children. I guess a ghost can pretty much be your conscience, as well, which is true with Scrooge.”
The country music legend is not in the show, but Parton says she will be at the Ordway Concert Hall to “talk to people and say ‘hey’ and welcome them” beforehand.
With songs written by Parton, the new musical transports Dickens’ Victorian drama to Depression-era Tennessee, where coal mine owner Ebenezer Scrooge’s penny-pinching leads to Christmas visits from ghosts who teach him the meaning of the holiday.
“Old Scrooge makes all the money and poor people do all the work,” as Parton put it.
Dane Stauffer plays Scrooge, leading a mostly Minnesota cast that includes Brandon Jackson and Mabel Weismann, who was Cindy Lou Who in Children’s Theatre’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” last year.
This isn’t Parton’s first time at the God-bless-us-everyone rodeo. She appeared via hologram as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a take on “A Christmas Carol” that played at Dollywood, her Tennessee theme park, in 2013.
She began talking about the musical years ago with collaborators Curt Wollan — the Twin Cities director who runs Troupe America, best known for the “Church Basement Ladies” series — and Paul T. Couch. That pair had worked together at Dollywood, where Couch was director of entertainment for 11 years and Wollan directed many shows. Those two adapted the classic along with David H. Bell.
Thinking about reinvigorating the tale brought Parton back to her childhood, when the toys and decorations on the tree were all handmade.
“I could understand that because I grew up poor in the mountains,” she said. “Coal mining was not where we made our money — we grew tobacco and things. But my daddy and our people knew all about it.
“This story hits me in the heart. We didn’t have anything and my daddy, in a good year, if he made $5,000, that was huge. It was usually more like $2,000. That was what my daddy raised his whole family on. Daddy was a good provider and Mama was wise in the ways she would preserve things and stretch everything as far as she could.”
Scrooges have popped up at various times in the career of the Country Music Hall of Famer, from her humble beginnings to superstardom.
“Oh, I’ve known more than enough of them. I’ve been Scrooged by businessmen over the years. There’s always somebody who is going to throw that dark shadow at you. So I really got into him.”
She is particularly fond of the old miser’s redemption. “When I wrote the song ‘Changed’ for him, I really felt like I had delivered him. He was free to be a good person and to see the error of his ways.”
Music is like acting to her
Parton says audiences should expect a variety of musical styles, from upbeat carols to a high-and-lonesome bluegrass number that is her favorite, “Appalachian Snowfall.”
Writing songs that get inside the heads of many characters is a process she fell in love with when working on the 2009 Broadway production of “9 to 5.” (When a set malfunctioned at a preview in Los Angeles, she famously leaped out of her seat to perform an impromptu concert.)
“It’s like something I was meant to do. I love getting into all the characters and just becoming the people I’m writing about, living the stories I’m telling,” says Parton, who has acted in films including “Steel Magnolias” and “9 to 5” (for which a sequel is in the works), in addition to being one of this country’s premier singer/songwriters.
She says making music is a lot like acting.
“I’ve always kind of acted out my songs the way I sing them, but I’m not making them for anyone in particular,” says Parton. In musical theater, however, “you have to know [the characters’] personalities and you structure it based on that. It’s fun.
“It brings me to a higher level than when I’m doing my own things because I don’t want to disappoint anyone. So many people are depending on it, whereas when I write my own songs, I feel like it’s my own thing and they can like it or not.”
At 72, with more than six decades of experience as a performer and a shelf that includes pretty much every award, including a National Medal of Honor and a Kennedy Center Honor, it seems clear that even a lot of Scrooges fall in the “like it” category with Parton. But she suspects we’ll never not need to remind ourselves of Dickens’ holiday entreaty to do better.
“That what’s so great about these old stories. We all have our hard times. There’s a Scrooge out there on every corner and there are always poor people, struggling to get by. The circumstances are different but you can always bring this story up to date.”