In the opening scene of Dreamgirls, the Dreamettes, a girl group from Chicago, take part in Amateur Night at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater, hoping for their big break. For the cast and artistic team of the revival of Dreamgirls, fantasy and reality converged in profound ways when the national tour was launched on that very stage.
"It was really special," says director Robert Longbottom. "So many people, including The Supremes and other famous girl groups, got their start at the Apollo. The theatre hasn't really been renovated, so you can feel all the people from all those decades. It's a beautiful old vaudeville palace, and it was thrilling for all of us to step on that stage and realize what that house had seen and what we were expected to deliver."
Expectations for Dreamgirls were high and went well beyond the walls of the Apollo. The 2006 movie was a huge success, and Michael Bennett's staging of the original 1981 Broadway production was heralded by many as groundbreaking. Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that Bennett had "fashioned a show that strikes with the speed and heat of lightning," adding that he "keeps Dreamgirls in constant motion — in every conceivable direction — to perfect his special brand of cinematic stage effects (montage, dissolve, wipe)."
"Stepping into Michael Bennett's shoes is not easy," says Longbottom, who co-choreographed the show with Shane Sparks. Nevertheless, the consensus among New York critics was that Longbottom delivered. "Michael Bennett's DNA is all over Dreamgirls," he continues. "In this production, some of the concepts and the thrilling moments are his moments. I would be crazy to run away from many of his brilliant, iconic ideas. But unlike A Chorus Line, which I don't believe anyone could reinvent, we could take the spirit of the original and make it state-of-the-art and up-to-the-minute. The idea of fame and everyone wanting their 15 minutes and clawing one's way up the ladder is even more prevalent now than it was in 1981, with 'American Idol' and all those other reality shows and competitions."
Dreamgirls, written by Henry Krieger (composer) and Tom Eyen (book and lyrics), follows the wannabe Dreamettes as they evolve into the superstar Dreams, who bear more than a passing resemblance to The Supremes. They make it to the top with a mainstream pop — or "white" — sound, turning their backs not just on their R&B roots, but on their original lead singer Effie, whose full figure and soulful voice project the wrong image. "The show is about the African-American experience told through a fantasized version of Motown and the rise of The Supremes," says Longbottom, "but it's really not the same story as The Supremes. Effie is removed from the group before the Dreams have their big hits. That was not the case with The Supremes. More important, this is a story about redemption. It's about the power of family, about sisterhood, about forgiveness."
William Ivey Long fashioned some 580 costumes and Robin Wagner, who designed the movable light towers and bridges for the original production, created yet another abstract set: a huge grid with lighting pods and five floor-to-ceiling, six-foot-wide, multi-functional LED screens that traverse the stage. They can appear transparent or turn into television screens. "It's a complex show to stage because there are split-second changes, not just of scenery but perspective," says Longbottom. "So there needed to be a very fluid scenic concept that allows you to go back and forth very quickly. The screens are able to configure almost limitless setups, defining space and shape.
"To me, the set operates as almost an aid to the fame machine," he continues. "The original production used computers for the first time, state-of-the-art technology. I think a part of our appetite as a culture is to have things large and quick and multilayered, and edited at breakneck speed. And the show was created that way. I had a feeling, and Robin agreed, that if the original team was making this show today, television and video and live camera action would be a part of it.
"Television is such a major component in celebrity, in exposure, in fame, in being taken down. So it was a natural [thing] to bring television in. The challenge of having live cameras all over the stage is that you're going to have a lot of close-ups of people who are wearing wigs and perspiring. But in many cases it really helps with the storytelling, especially when Effie is pushed out of the picture."
Longbottom made one major change in Act II, adding the song "Listen," which was written for the film for Beyonce. In the movie, Deena, lead singer of the Dreams, makes a recording of the song in a studio. The lyrics were rewritten for this revival, and the number is now a duet between Effie and Deena. "As much as I adored the original production — and I think I saw it 20 times on Broadway — I never felt that the second act reached the heights of the first," says Longbottom. "One of the things that I felt was deficient was the reconciliation and, initially, the fight between these two women. There was a brilliant setup, and then the audience thought it was finally going to get the stare down it was waiting for all night, but it didn't happen. And oddly enough, there wasn't an 11 o'clock number. I suggested to Henry that we think about doing 'Listen' as a duet, because these women have very different perspectives to share. As soon as Effie hears what really went on with Deena, they can find their way back to each other. I think the song fills a moment that wasn't there."