When Glenna Godsey was cast in a nine-month international tour of the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in the early Eighties, she started out playing Doatsey Mae, a wistful café waitress with one memorable solo, but quickly upgraded. The role of Miss Mona, the wise and experienced owner of a Texas brothel, had been played on the tour by Stella Parton – you might have heard of her sister Dolly, who had a hit with the role in the 1982 film adaptation – and when Parton left the tour, Godsey took the lead.
Thirty-odd years later, she’s playing Miss Mona again, this time for CenterStage’s Jewish Community Center, where she appears frequently in other musical theatre productions.
“There aren’t many shows I would repeat,” she says. “When this possiblity came open I said absolutely. It’s like going home.”
But Godsey also says she looks at the role differently now than she did when she was a younger actress.
“I mean now I’m actually old enough to play the part,” she says with a laugh. “Before, I wasn’t quite where I should be as far as age goes. But now I’ve also had a child, so the girls, I have a different kind of relationship with the girls who work for me, because I’ve personally been a mother, so I mother them more than I did before.”
“The girls” are prostitutes who work for Mona at The Chicken Ranch, a legendary brothel that operated in a small Texas town for decades with the unofficial blessing of the local authorities until a television reporter exposed the business in the early 1970s. For real - the musical, written by Peter Masterson and Texas author Larry L. King (with music and lyrics by Carol Hall), is based on the true story of a brothel in LaGrange, Texas, that operated for nearly 70 years before a television investigative reporter helped shut it down.
“We drove through LaGrange when I was on tour. We went to the [ranch], which was about to fall down, and did pictures inside,” says Godsey. “It was surreal to be there and actually see the place. We went to the courthouse steps where so much took place. We had a great time, but the town in particular wasn’t happy that we were there.”
“LaGrange did not embrace us,” she adds. “They were glad when we left.”
Turns out the lightly-fictionalized story of LaGrange story had legs. The 1978 Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards and won two, for lead performances by Carlin Glynn (Mona) and Henderson Forsythe (the sheriff with whom she enjoys a long-standing friendship). And the 1982 film adaptation starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds was the highest-grossing live-action musical film of the 1980s.
CenterStage artistic director John Leffert directs this production. He says fans of Parton’s film will find some similarities and some striking differences in the stage version.
“There are those people that think they know the musical, but the musical is very different from the film. They inserted a lot of Dolly’s music into the film,” says Leffert. “But this has a truer, deeper country Texas feel.”
Leffert says for a “big, broad musical comedy” that’s become a period piece, with its good-time portrayal of small-town prostitution, the show still has contemporary relevance and resonance.
“We have our own watchdogs out, and they keep passing judgment on society,” says Leffert.
As far as musicals about vice go, it’s more naughty than raunchy. But Leffert cautions audiences to treat the show like an R-rated movie, suitable for the 17-years-old and up crowd.
“There’s a little bit of language – well, quite a bit of language – the sheriff has some authentic Texas language in the piece, and, you know, it’s pretty risqué,” says Leffert.
“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” opens Thursday and runs through January 19 at the Jewish Community Center. Ticket and show information is available online.