When Jennifer Holliday opened at the Imperial Theatre in the original 1981 production of Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls, Broadway audiences witnessed one of the most gut-wrenching performances in musical theatre history. Holliday starred as Effie White, a young, struggling, overweight singer who is fired from her all-girl group The Dreams, just as the threesome is about to achieve international success. Holliday's heartbreaking, full-voiced and gospel-tinged delivery of Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" was nothing short of astonishing, and audiences responded nightly with thunderous cheers and amazement. In fact, in his New York Times review, Frank Rich wrote, "Holliday's Act 1 solo is one of the most powerful theatrical coups to be found in a Broadway musical since Ethel Merman sang 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' at the end of Act 1 of Gypsy." Holliday will return to the career-making role that won her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical this July, part of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia. I recently had the chance to speak with the versatile singer actress, who is also a star of television and a Grammy winning recording artist.
Q: How does it feel to be returning to the role of Effie White?
Jennifer Holliday: It feels great. I'm very excited.
Q: When was the last time you played the role?
JH: In '94.
Q: And that was where?
JH: Also for Theater of the Stars in Atlanta. Q: So, you've worked at the theatre before?
JH: That's why I'm doing it for them again because they're just very classy people, and they uphold the integrity of their work.
Q: Were you involved in the casting of this production?
JH: Yes, I was. I just wanted to make the experience more personable. I wanted to — even though we're only going to be doing this a short time — I wanted to get to know the people. I wanted them to get to know me. I just wanted a memorable experience there. I wanted it to be with people that I could see [working with] again.
Q: Any chance you might tour with the show or bring it back to Broadway?
JH: I have no idea, but I tell you, as I've been getting closer, I've been getting really excited, and I really have confidence in this cast. They are really good. The problem is I have 80 percent new cast, so there are only going to be three of us who've actually done it together before.
Q: Who else has played it with you before?
JH: Eugene Fleming, who's playing James Thunder Early, he's done it before, and Alisa Gyse, who's playing Deena, also played Deena with me the last time in '94, and then me. That's it!
Q: The role is so vocally demanding. Do you have any regimen for keeping your voice in shape?
JH: Shuttin' up. [Laughs.] When I'm not onstage, I've gotta be really quiet. It's called shut up. It's called shut up, baby! [Laughs.]
Q: Do you try not to speak on the day of shows?
JH: No, not really. It's not so much about that because whispering also hurts the throat. For singers, our singing voice is our natural voice, not the speaking.
Q: Looking back on the original experience of Dreamgirls, how do you remember it?
JH: The original experience was a lot of pain. It was a painful time. I was an unhappy person. And my life reflected that. It was just a hard time, and I was with [Dreamgirls co-star] Sheryl Lee Ralph last night, and she and I were sitting and talking . . . It's so funny because we love who we are now, both of us. It makes us embrace each other better. It makes us appreciate and respect each other better and be able to really, genuinely encourage the other. And, we both are pretty hot babes, too, I must admit. [Laughs.] We were looking pretty sexy last night, child. We were like, 'We could just do Dreamgirls right here.' It was nice to look to see where the 20 years had taken us — to a great place, so far much better than where we were 20 years ago.
Q: What was that "overnight" success like 20 years ago?
JH: Success is overwhelming . . . I became very lonely, food became my best friend, my lover and everything else.
Q: You've managed to keep the weight off for years now. What advice would you give to those who are struggling with a weight issue?
JH: Well, I think you have to do a lot of mental work. I had to really get to the root of all the things that were making me eat. Food is no longer a priority in my life. It's a means of nourishment, that sort of thing. It's not like where I used to eat dinner and already start thinking about what I was going to have for breakfast and where I was going to have it at. [Laughs.] . . . Now people have to remind me, 'Jennifer, it's time to eat.'
Q: Anything happening with the Bessie Smith musical [Downhearted Blues — The Life and Music of Bessie Smith] that you had done Off-Broadway.
JH: I don't know. I wanted to see what's going to happen with Dreamgirls when we go down [to Atlanta]. If someone would be interested or if we all feel good about doing some more, then I would be able to tell. Right now, I wanted to wait and get this out of the way. If this is the last fling of it, that's fine. But my dream was that we could take this production of Dreamgirls to London. That's the dream because we've never been. That would be the only thing in my mind that I could think that I would want to do before really hanging it up, before saying, 'Okay, this is the last whirl and let it go.'
Q: It must be hard to let it go.
JH: No. [Laughs.] It's easy. It's easy. It just depends on what you're looking for at the time.
Q: Would [Dreamgirls composer] Henry Krieger be involved with the show if it went to London? Are you in touch with him?
JH: I'm not involved with Henry Krieger at all. He's not like a friend or anything. I would think that if somebody wanted to do it, they might get in touch with Henry. I don't have the rights to do it beyond Atlanta. I only have the rights for just Atlanta.
Q: Why weren't you involved with the recent Dreamgirls concert?
JH: None of [the original cast] were involved. Originally, Sheryl Lee had the idea of coming up with this concert, and they stole it from her. They took it and ran away with it and decided to do it on their own and not involve any of us . . . We were very disappointed. We were very hurt. We were very insulted. We were very, very concerned. Had 9/11 not happened, we probably would have pursued it further in terms of going after things in the right way. But after 9/11 happened, we figured that we would just leave it alone because we are American too, and our country's hurting, our city's hurting, and a fight about not doing [Dreamgirls] was just not anything we wanted to get into at the time . . . But, we ain't through yet! [Laughs.] We ain't through, baby.
Q: You received good notices for your work on 'Ally McBeal.' Do you have any other TV projects in the works?
JH: Nothing yet. I would like to do more television, especially now, since they're doing more from New York. I would love to try to get involved with some.
Q: How did the 'Ally McBeal' role come about?
JH: David Kelly sought me out himself, and that was at the beginning of the show. But it was really just to sing a song, which was my original version of 'Short People,' in that episode. And that was really all I was supposed to do, and he and I hit it off, and I was on the show for all the seasons, from the beginning to the end.
Q: I imagine Bessie Smith was one of the singers you admired. Are there any others?
JH: Aretha Franklin, first and foremost . . . That's my top girl there. That's my baby right there.
Q: Are you working on anything else . . . a new album?
JH: Nothing right now. I'm hoping maybe in the fall to see what I can get going.
Q: One final question. When people hear the name Jennifer Holliday, what would you want them to think?
JH: Apart from what they already think?! [Laughs.] The first thing that comes to mind is Dreamgirls . . . I would just want the name to always be connected with some type of hope or inspiration, which I think it pretty much is, because usually if I'm called to sing for something, it's usually patriotic. I'm always at the White House. Usually, if someone wants an inspiring type number, patriotic, gospel, big love song, then I think you do think of me.
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK Joining Jennifer Holliday in The National Black Arts Festival's July 19 through July 27 mounting of Dreamgirls are Ramona Keller (Lorrell Robinson), Alisa Gyse (Deena Jones), Norm Lewis (Curtis), Eugene Fleming (James Thunder Early), Joe Wilson Jr. (C.C. White) and Ginai Curti (Michelle). The chorus comprises Sondra Bonitto, Conisha Wade, Tracee Beazer, Nikki Renee Daniels, Stacey Harris, Manoly Farrell, Marvin Thornton, Ivory McKay, Andravy, Gary Kilmer, Paul Castree and Richard E. Waits. Tickets for Dreamgirls are priced between $16 and $60. Go to www.nbaf.org for more information . . . Academy Award winner Joel Grey will be on hand to induct fellow performer and long-time friend Bernadette Peters into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame on June 28. Kathleen Battle, Randy Newman and the late George Harrison will also be inducted that evening; Battle will be inducted by Janet Jackson, Newman by director John Lasseter and Harrison by Billy Preston. The third annual Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame Concert Gala, which opens the 81st season at the famed outdoor theatre, will include performances by the three living honorees as well as appearances by other celebrity artists and a dazzling display of fireworks. Peters will sing two Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Nothing Like a Dame." Tickets for the concert only ($15 - $75), which begins at 8:30 PM, are available by calling (213) 480-3232. Tickets for the gala and concert ($500 - $1,250), including a pre-concert reception and dinner (at 5 PM) are available by calling (213) 972-3051.The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA; for more information, go to www.hollywoodbowl.org . . . Principal casting is now complete for the Paper Mill: State Theater of New Jersey's upcoming production of Miss Saigon. Broadway veteran Kevin Gray will star as The Engineer, a role the actor played on tour in the Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil musical. Dina Morishita will play Kim, the part originated in London and on Broadway by Lea Salonga, and Aaron Ramey — currently in the chorus of Thoroughly Modern Millie — will play Chris. Steven Eng will star as Thuy; a spokesman for Paper Mill confirmed the casting. Rehearsals begin mid-August for Miss Saigon's Sept. 4 through Oct. 20 run, and tickets — available at the theatre's box office, (973) 376 4343 — go on sale July 8 . . . Julie Andrews is currently writing her autobiography for Hyperion Books, and she also plans to direct a production at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre. A spokesman for the Bay Street explained that Andrews will not be on board this season but hopefully in the not-too-distant future. The former star of "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins" is also busy working for the Foundation for Voice Restoration and Research at the Massachusetts Eye & Ear Infirmary in Boston. "Not about me," she recently told Variety, "but for those who've lost use from cancer, premature birth, aging." . . . The final night of the upcoming Cabaret Convention at New York's Town Hall (Oct. 27) will celebrate Four Women of Song: Karen Akers, Karen Mason, Christine Andreas and KT Sullivan. Stay tuned for details.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
June 29 at the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, Long Island, NY
July 7 at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in Santa Fe, NM
Sept. 20 and 21 in Brisbane, Australia
Sept. 28 at the Haugh Performing Arts Center in Glendora, CA
Oct. 3-6 at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX
Oct. 22-Nov. 9 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY-Purchase in Purchase, NY
Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
Liz Callaway in Concert June 30 & July 1 "Sibling Revelry" at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL
July 14 at the Bradston County Hotel's Nancy LaMott Room in White Lake, NY
July 15 at the Hilton Garden Inn inStaten Island, NY
August 2 in "Stephen Schwartz and Friends" in Bethlehem, PA
August 16 & 17 at the Stackner Cabaret Theatre in Milwaukee, WI
September 30 in the Merrily We Roll Along Broadway Reunion Concert in NYC
Barbara Cook in Concert:
Now through Aug. 26 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, NY (Mostly Sondheim)
July 5 at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts in Long Island
August 14-18 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre in Washington, DC
Oct. 19 at the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, WA
Nov. 2 at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in Brooklyn, NY
Nov. 17 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Maureen McGovern in Concert:
June 22 "Music by the Lake" in Lake Geneva, WI
June 29-Aug. 17 Dear World at Sundance Theater, Sundance, UT
July 4 with the Boston Pops in Boston, MA
Aug. 7 at the Salt Lake City Jazz Festival in Salt Lake City, UT
Sept. 1-2 MDA Jerry Lewis Telethon in Los Angeles, CA
Sept. 20 - 22 Grand Rapids Symphony at DeVos Hall in Grand Rapids, MI
Sept 26-29 North Carolina Symphony, Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh, NC
Oct. 30-Nov. 3 American Music Therapy Association Conference in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 2 at the Rialto Center in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 9 at the Landmark Theater in Port Washington, NY
Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit, Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL
Bernadette Peters in Concert:
June 28 at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, CA
July 2 at the Interlochen Center in Interlochen, MI
Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at the Morton H. Meyerson Hall in Dallas, TX
Sept. 28 at the Weidner Center in Green Bay, WI
Oct. 5 Sundome Center in Sun City West, AZ
Oct. 24 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, IN
Oct. 26 at the Kleinhans Auditorium in Buffalo, NY
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!
—By Andrew Gans