Why Christmas on the Square is the holiday movie 2020 needs, according to Dolly Parton and co.
Also: Parton picks her favorite song performed by Christine Baranski, and Jenifer Lewis recalls when Debbie Allen snatched her wig.
Dolly Parton has had a busy few months: She released a holiday album, casually funded a COVID vaccine, and now, she produces and stars in the Netflix musical Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square — for which she also wrote 14 festive tunes.
“I love all the Christmas shows on TV, all the Christmas specials — and especially any Christmas musical, and this is my first Christmas musical,” Parton tells EW. “I had the chance to write 14 original new songs, and hearing all these wonderful artists sing them was a real joy for me.”
Among them is Christine Baranski, who stars as Regina Fuller, a Scroogeian figure set on selling her small midwestern town, Fullerville, to make way for an enormous mega-mall. As Regina distributes a pile of eviction notices right before Christmas, her former best friend (Jenifer Lewis), high school boyfriend (Treat Williams), and the town’s pastor (Josh Segarra) protest, while her harried assistant (Jeanine Mason) scrambles around after her, trying to apologize to every freshly served citizen of Fullerville.
After Regina sets her plan into motion, a fabulously sparkly, sassy angel (Parton, naturally) begins haunting our ungenerous heroine, reminding her of what the town once meant to her and how much she’s changed from the girl who grew up in Fullerville.
Bringing together Parton, Baranski, and Lewis in a film written, directed, choreographed, and produced by Debbie Allen, Christmas on the Square boasts an incomparable lineup of industry icons. “Truly, to watch the four of them work — they are all legends, and they have such unbelievable careers, and they are really well matched,” Mason tells EW. “They are in the same rhythm. They are such consummate professionals, such optimists.”
For Baranski, “it was the privilege of a lifetime,” she says. “When I heard this project was being done and then they wanted to send me a script, I said, ‘I don’t need to read the script, it’s Dolly Parton, I just want to be on a set with Dolly Parton!” The country queen responds: “Well, I have been a big fan of Christine’s for years, so getting a chance to work with her was really wonderful.”
“I was so proud of everybody,” Parton says of the cast performing her original songs. Of the 14 tracks she wrote for the film, she loves the holiday tunes “Christmas Is” and “Christmas on the Square” (both of which also recorded herself and included on her album Holly Dolly Christmas, the former with Miley Cyrus), but also names “Can You Forgive Me?” sung by Baranski at the end of the film, as a particular favorite. “I think it also has a real message in it for a lot of people — but she just delivered it so well.”
Upon Baranski’s urging, Parton says she may record the song herself as well — but asks Baranski to sing it with her. She’s considering recording a few of the tracks that aren’t explicitly holiday-themed in the future, and repeats her famous line, “I’ve always said my songs are like my children, and I expect them to support me when I’m old.”
For Allen and Lewis, working together was a happy reunion: “It was just like family, music, having the best pot of gumbo you can ever have,” Allen enthuses. “I’ve loved her forever.”
“Debbie gave me my first job in Hollywood on A Different World, so when she calls, I answer,” Lewis adds. “I was in Antarctica when she called. I said, ‘I’m down here with 400,000 penguins.’ She said ‘I don’t care, you get to Buenos Aires and then you get to Los Angeles’ — 18 text messages! — ‘Get to Debbie Allen Dance Academy and learn to vogue!’ [demonstrates voguing] Girl, so there was Dolly Parton in rhinestones [puts on rhinestone face shield, rings jingle bells], 85 Christmas songs, and baby we went!”
Lewis (whom Parton describes as “crazy in a good way”) does have one small criticism for the director, however: “I will say that Debbie snatched my wig off at one point.” Allen protests, “We were trying to shoot a shot, and she had the whole cast in the corner singing one of her songs! I’m like, girl, we don’t have time for this mess. And she kept singing — I snatched that wig. I snatched it.”
Laughing as they recollect the wig-snatching, it comes as no surprise that the joyous Christmas musical sounds like it was as much fun to make as it is to watch (“I was honestly dazzled,” says Mason of the production). Shooting took place in Atlanta in summer of 2019 — long before any of the cast or creative team might have dreamed of how the world would look upon its release, at the end of pandemic-stricken 2020.
“Thank god,” Baranski says. “Thank god we did it and thank god we waited to release it an extra year. I think the world needs it so badly. This year it’s going to be a real gift to people.” Reflects Allen: “There was no COVID when we shot this movie, but we knew we were doing something that was going to be important. It has so much joy, but it also has some really hard lessons learned — there’s a morality to it, there’s a moral spine to it.”
“The coming-together!” Lewis adds. “The importance of us all coming together, human beings around the world right now, for a common good, and as John Lewis said, good trouble. We’ve all got to stand up and evolve, consciously, into this new behavior, which is, and I’m not joking [puts bedazzled face shield back on]: stay safe! Stay safe this holiday season! And wear many rhinestones like Dolly Parton! That’s my message.”
After a year like this, there’s even more to learn from the legendary singer. “She is so about making people’s day a little brighter. That is truly her essence, and it’s the messaging of our film, and god — we need it now more than ever,” Mason says. “One of my last days on set, she said to me, ‘you’ve got to remember that, at the end of the day, as entertainers, what we’re here to do is to lift people out of our sadness, even if it’s just for that hour or two. That makes it all worth it.'”
Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is now streaming on Netflix.