Many are the similarities between Chicago and Dreamgirls, starting with less-than-enthusiastic critical and audience receptions on Broadway, with the musicals both relegated to second place in the awards sweepstakes. Both, I think it is safe to say, have proven to be far more durable than was initially thought. Chicago established far greater prominence with its 1996 revival, and the much-heralded motion picture turned out to be a major success as well. Dreamgirls came to the screen in 2006 with much fanfare and great expectations, which it pretty much lived up to. Come awards time, though, the film was all but shut out, altogether overlooked in the all-important Best Picture sweepstakes; it is almost as if they were overwhelmed by the shadow of the phenomenal success of Best Picture-winner "Chicago."
Be that as it may, "Dreamgirls" is quite a film, with director Bill Condon (screenwriter of "Chicago") successfully translating Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's stage show into something considerably different for the screen. Jennifer Hudson made quite a splash, as you might have heard, as Effie, the girl who tells you she is not going. Hudson won an Oscar for this performance, in much the same way that Jennifer Holliday won the Tony for her stage rendition of the same role. Lillias White was a similarly breathtaking Effie in Bennett's 1987 revival (which makes one wonder whether some of the credit should go to Kreiger and Eyen for writing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going").
Playing the leading roles, with their ticket-selling names up there above the title, are Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and the (perhaps surprisingly) very good Eddie Murphy as James "Thunder" Early. Also featured are Anika Noni Rose (a Tony-winner for Caroline, or Change) and Keith Robinson; all of them join together to make the screen "Dreamgirls" a fine and welcome addition to the motion picture musical catalogue. The new "2-disc showstopper edition," just released by DreamWorks, is loaded with special features which will no doubt keep fans busy. These include a full-length documentary, "Building the Dream," screen tests, and "12 never-before-seen extended musical numbers" (being mostly additional footage of the musical numbers that was edited out of the finished version).
The difference between screen and stage is often a formidable breach, but three recent films are so steeped with stage talent that you can be forgiven for momentarily confusing the mediums. The Queen [Miramax] comes from Peter Morgan, whose Frost/Nixon is currently thrilling audiences at Broadway's Bernard Jacobs Theatre. Helen Mirren, one of London's favorite stage actresses plays the title character, and won an Oscar doing so. Michael Sheen, now playing David Frost on 45th Street, plays Tony Blair of Downing Street. "The Queen" might be called a remarkable dual-character study, with fascinatingly disparate protagonists (which you could say about Frost/Nixon as well). Notes on a Scandal [Fox] comes from screenwriter Patrick Marber (of Closer) and director Richard Eyre (of Mary Poppins), with everybody's favorite Judi Dench in the lead opposite Kate Blanchett, with Bill Nighy (who made such a splash in this season's Vertical Hour) in support. And then there's Venus [Miramax], with one-time Broadway star Peter O'Toole giving a grand performance as an aging actor. Look, there's Vanessa Redgrave, who is just now up for a Tony Award for The Year of Magical Thinking! Look, there's Richard Griffiths, who won last year for History Boys. All three films feature grand acting, highlighted by extra-special performances by the high-octane stars, and all three deliver high entertainment to the viewers. The common denominator here is Scott Rudin, co-producer of "The Queen," "Notes on a Scandal," "Venus," "Closer," The Year of Magical Thinking and Frost/Nixon.
Warner Home Video has continued their parade of multi-DVD sets with what they call the Essential Classic Collections. My Fair Lady, Singin' in the Rain and Gigi; now, that is a packet of essential classics if ever I've seen one. Each of these films is otherwise available on DVD in various configurations; the one-disc versions included in the Essential Classic Musicals group are understandably without all the bonus features you find on the two-disc "special editions" of these titles. Even so, we get (according to the promo material, anyway) the very latest remastered versions of the films, plus limited bonuses. The "Gigi" disc, however, gives us both standard and widescreen versions — and Vincente Minnelli's Paris is especially delicious in widescreen.
The list price for the two-disc special editions of these titles is $26.98 each; the entire three-DVD set lists for only $30.97. If you're one of those people who rarely make it through all those bonuses, this is indeed a consumer-friendly price. Also of interest among the Essential Classic Collections is the one they call Classic American Musicals, which includes "The Music Man," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." This one was not reviewed by me, but I expect the titles are handled in much the same way.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)