Director Jeff Calhoun’s fabulous, unlikely journey from Dolly queen to professional Dolly collaborator
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
Jeff Calhoun has been a Broadway baby for nearly 30 years, directing revivals of Grease and Big River, plus choreographing those shows and revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Bells Are Ringing. He’s got a Tony Award nom and is best friends with Tommy Tune. But he’s still hoping for the Holy Grail every theater director craves: That one original show to call his own, the lasting legacy.
“I thought Brooklyn was going to be that for me — the next Rent — which tells you how little I know,” he says of his 2004 show that ran a respectable 284 performances. Then when he heard producers were adapting the Dolly Parton film comedy 9 to 5 for Broadway, he thought he finally had his shot. Only it was not to be.
“I was really disappointed when they hired Joe Mantello to direct,” he says plainly. Then some serendipity occurred: First, 9 to 5 turned out to be a bust on Broadway, running only four months. Then the producers did something that has probably never been done before: They hired a new director to retool the show for the national tour. And that was Jeff Calhoun.
“It was a miracle,” he says.
Directing 9 to 5, which opens Wednesday at Fair Park Music Hall, is an appropriate bookend for Calhoun, who got his start as a 21-year-old working with Dolly Parton on the film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
“She was in her prime — and so was I, as a matter of fact,” he jokes. “I wanted to do [9 to 5] because, first, I love Dolly; and second, I wanted to do an homage to 1970s variety shows — Sonny and Cher and Carol Burnett and such. I knew this was perfect: It takes place in 1979. But [the in Broadway version] there was no context, other than the costumes and bad hair. You should feel like you’re back in the ’70s, from Charlie’s Angels to Burt Reynolds posing nude in Playgirl.”
Calhoun tackled the show anew, treating it “as if it has its own DNA.” There was a lot of adapting: Some songs were cut, others rearranged; the style was streamlined, jokes were punched up. And working with Dolly was its own reward.
“It’s been one of my favorite collaborations. I have a picture of her and me together [on the set of Whorehouse] that any fan, especially a gay person, will look at that and oh my god! All I am missing is Cher on my other side.”
The touring production also snagged some major talent in Tony nominee Dee Hoty (who worked with Calhoun on The Will Rogers Follies and, coincidentally, plays Miss Mona — the Dolly role — in The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public) and American Idol runner-up Diana DiGarmo, who starred in the tour of Calhoun’s Brooklyn.
Calhoun is a quick wit with a naughty, uncensored side who gets dishy and expresses his opinions without much coaxing.
Broadway is run by “businessmen without imagination,” he says. “That’s what’s great about [the new musical] The Book of Mormon — it’s brilliant and it shows original thought — rare today.” He’s happy bin Laden was killed on Obama’s watch as it “may shut up the naysayers. My parents — I love them and they are great people — but they have this blind spot for Obama. They would vote for Nixon tomorrow if he was running.” And don’t get him started on Sarah Palin.
“I wrote a song about Sarah Palin — it stars with C and ends with unt,” he says. “She’s written a book but she’s never read one? I hate that she has pride in her ignorance — it’s as if everyone in the audience of Let’s Make a Deal became Republicans.”
Politicking aside, next up for Calhoun are two Broadway shows: A musical adaptation of Newsies (with a script by Harvey Fierstein) immediately followed by a show with yet another Texas connection: Bonnie & Clyde: The Musical. For a Yankee, Calhoun has surprisingly strong ties to Dallas.
“I was in Dallas with Busker Alley when you had that big flood and my upside-down rental car was the image that led the news,” he says. “And I love [Dallas Summer Musicals chief] Michael Jenkins — he’s one of my best friends. Yes, I’ve had so many good experiences there, both theatrically and in the bars! I love me some Dallas!”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 13, 2011.