Focusing on the fictional Motown group The Dreams, famously inspired by The Supremes, Dreamgirls explores the stardom, competition, and love lives surrounding three African-American women climbing the ranks of the music industry in the ’60s and ’70s. The musical starred Jennifer Holliday as Effie White, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena, and Loretta Devine as Lorell—the trio at the center of it all—breakout roles for each.
The original production opened December 20, 1981, at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre. Directed and co-choreographed by Michael Bennett and co-choreographed by Michael Peters, Dreamgirls featured a book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger. Nominated for 13 Tony awards including Best Musical, the show ultimately won six, including Best Book of a Musical, Best Actor for Ben Harney, Best Actress for Jennifer Holliday, and Best Featured Actor for Cleavant Derricks. The show was a hit and played over 1,500 performances before closing August 11, 1985.
Dreamgirls found renewed popularity with a 2006 film adaptation starring Jennifer Hudson as Effie, Beyoncé as Deena, Anika Noni Rose as Lorell, and Jamie Foxx as Curtis, but it’s the men and women below who first cemented these characters in the hearts and minds of the American public. Here, we look at what the principal cast has been up to since leaving Broadway’s Dreamgirls:
Jennifer Holliday, Effie Melody White
After departing Dreamgirls, for which she won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, Holliday appeared in several Broadway productions including Grease as the Teen Angel, Chicago as Matron “Mama” Morton in 2001, and, most recently, the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple as a replacement for Shug Avery. Holliday is best known for “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the Act I finale of of the show, which she sang again as a pop song in 1982, topping the Billboard R&B charts and earning a 1983 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She went on to a successful career as an R&B and gospel singer.
Ben Harney, Curtis Taylor, Jr.
Before appearing in Dreamgirls, Harney had extensive Broadway experience, performing in The Wiz as a replacement for the Tinman, Pippin as a replacement for Leading Player in 1976, and performing as a dancer in the 1973 revival of The Pajama Game. Harney won a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Curtis, a character inspired by Berry Gordy. Harney also appeared in the film version of The Wiz as an ensemblist. He has since left his performing career and is now a member of the ministry.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Deena Jones
Nominated for Best Actress in a Musical, Ralph’s Broadway career had just begun after playing Deena Jones in Dreamgirls. (Before the production she had made her Broadway debut in 1980’s Reggae) Ralph has since appeared in Thoroughly Modern Millie where she originated the role of Muzzy Van Hossmere—which she “revived” in last year’s one-night-only concert benefit for the Actors Fund alongside members of the original cast. Most recently, she played stints in Wicked as a replacement for Madame Morrible from November 2016 through July 2017. Besides her many stage credits, Ralph has appeared in many television shows, including Smash, Moesha, One Love, Ray Donovan, and Claws. Up next, she’ll lead new series Fam, alongside Brian Stokes Mitchell, which premieres January 10 on CBS.
Obba Babatundé, C.C. White
Nominated for his performance in Dreamgirls, Babatundé had already been in three previous Broadway shows (Timbuktu!, Reggae, and It’s So Nice to Be Civilized). After Dreamgirls, the actor replaced in the 1985 production of Grind and has replaced as Billy Flynn in Chicago, in 2006 and in 2008. Millennials may know him best as Principal Green on Dawson’s Creek. He voiced numerous characters on the animated series Rocket Power from 1999–2004 and starred as Charles Thorne on Half & Half. He is series regular Dean Fairbanks on Netflix’s Dear White People and continues to appear as Julius Avant on The Bold and the Beautiful.
Loretta Devine, Lorrell Robinson
Playing the character based on Mary Wilson, Devine continued briefly on Broadway before breaking out into the film and television industries. She joined Dreamgirls cast mate Cleavant Derricks in Big Deal, which opened in 1986, originating the role of Lilly, but has not appeared on Broadway since. Devine is best known for her roles on Boston Public, Grey’s Anatomy (for which she won a Primetime Emmy Award in 2011 and earned a nomination in 2012). She starred in the series The Client List, the mini-series The Doc Files, recurred on Being Mary Jane, and starred on The Carmichael Show. She voices the character of Hallie on the beloved children’s show Doc McStuffins, and is currently filming the new series Family Reunion, set to debut in 2019.
Cleavant Derricks, James “Thunder” Early
After departing Dreamgirls with a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Derricks continued his career on Broadway, originating the role of Charley in Big Deal and bowing as part of the original cast of Brooklyn. His performance in Big Deal earned him another Tony nomination, this time for Best Actor in a Musical. Derricks also appeared in the original Roseanne, Charmed, and The Equalizer. He is best known for Sliders and Moscow on Hudson and worked as a music arranger on the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls.
Deborah Burrell, Michelle Morris
Michelle joins The Dreams after Effie is unceremoniously kicked out—though Burrell did go on to replace as Deena later on in the life of the production. She also went on to perform as part of the Dreamgirls national tour. After Dreamgirls, Burrell continued on Broadway in The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club, originating the role of Queen, and Swinging on a Star as a cover for a number of roles.
Vondie Curtis-Hall, Marty
Before Dreamgirls, Curtis-Hall made his debut in It’s So Nice to Be Civilized in 1980 and performed alongside Lena Horne in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. After Dreamgirls, he returned to Broadway once more: as an understudy in the musical revue Stardust in 1987. He has, however, continued his acting career both in movies and on television. He earned an Emmy nomination in 1995 for his guest role on ER. His most notable roles include Dr. Dennis Hancock on Chicago Hope, Sam Rhodes in Broken Arrow and Captain Prince in the remake of Romeo + Juliet starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Other appearances include Coming to America, Marvel’s Daredevil, and Rosewood. Recently, he played Judge Byrne in the new series For the People and is set to appear in Harriet, the bio-pic starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman.
Flip through photos of the original Broadway production below: