STAGE TO SCREENS: "Dreamgirls" Composer Krieger and Co-Star Rose; Plus David Warren

This month, composer Henry Krieger and Tony winner (Caroline, or Change) Anika Noni Rose talk about the "Dreamgirls" film, and David Warren (The Voysey Inheritance) reflects on his crossover to TV ("Desperate Housewives").

Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose in
Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose in "Dreamgirls." (Photo by Dreamworks SKG)

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" Dreamgirls," which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 15, goes nationwide on Christmas Day. The film comes 25 years after the Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen musical premiered (Dec. 20, 1981) on Broadway. It was the last show for Michael Bennett (1943-87), who directed, co-choreographed, and co-produced, and to whom the movie is dedicated.

Bill Condon wrote and directed the film. An Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Gods and Monsters"), he penned the screenplay for "Chicago." Performances are superb, especially Beyoncé Knowles (as Deena Jones), Jamie Foxx (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Eddie Murphy (a likely Supporting Actor Oscar contender as James "Thunder" Early), Anika Noni Rose (Lorrell Robinson), and Danny Glover (Marty Madison).

Jennifer Hudson (Effie White) turns in an award-caliber portrayal that should earn her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Already the winner of the New York Film Critics Best Supporting Actress Award, she garnered a Variety rave: "An 'American Idol' finalist without prior screen experience, Hudson comes fully-formed to film. It's the kind of galvanizing perf that calls to mind debuts like Barbra Streisand in 'Funny Girl' or Bette Midler in 'The Rose'...."

Essentially a high-gloss soap opera (recalling the rise of the Supremes), it doesn't matter if one is aware of the inspirations for many of the characters, or that there are some pat plot points and moments a tad too sentimental. Audiences (many of whom are paying $25-a-ticket for the first weeks' showings) should respond favorably to the rapid-fire action and numerous musical numbers, the best of which is Hudson's "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going." Golden Globe nominations were announced Dec. 14 and "Dreamgirls" received five: Picture (Musical or Comedy), Actress (Beyoncé), Supporting Actress and Actor (Hudson and Murphy), and for the new song (one of four) "Listen," sung by Beyoncé, with a lyric by Knowles, Scott Cutler, and Anne Preven; music by Henry Krieger.

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Says Henry Krieger (we spoke in late November), "I've seen the movie three times and I'm seeing it three more times this coming week. We certainly got lucky with Mr. Condon. There's no question. I'm beside myself with appreciation of Bill Condon and everybody else who's made [the film] what it is. I hope the public will embrace it."

Over the years, there have been other attempts to bring the musical to the screen. "A lot of different times," admits Krieger. "One time, [director] Joel Schumacher was set to do it, with a screenplay by Tina Andrews."

Besides "Listen," the new songs (all with Krieger's music) are "Love You I Do," performed by Hudson, and "Perfect World," which, explains Krieger, "is excerpted in the film. A lot of it happens in the scene with James and Lorell discussing their relationship." Both songs have lyrics by singer-songwriter Siedah Garrett. "I adore her!," exclaims Krieger.

There's also "Patience," performed by Murphy, Rose, and Keith Robinson, which has lyrics by Willie Reale (a Tony nominee for A Year With Frog and Toad). Notes Krieger, "He founded the 52nd Street Project, an outreach program for children. I've been with it since 1988, and have written over a hundred songs for it, most of them with Willie Reale."

Which songwriters influenced Krieger? "I've always been a big fan of Richard Rodgers. I also love his grandson Adam Guettel's work. Certainly Frank Loesser, and I was very, very impressed with Lerner and Loewe's score for My Fair Lady.

"On occasion, I attended Broadway musicals. My first was South Pacific. I also liked Meredith Willson's shows, and I loved Take Me Along, with Jackie Gleason. I went to see it twice by myself. It completely captivated me as a 14 year old. Gleason was so good, and I remember Miss [Eileen] Herlie singing 'I Get Embarrassed.' That show was a huge event in my young life.

"I grew up in a couple of different worlds. I discovered rhythm and blues — Ray Charles — by hearing him sing 'Swanee River Rock' on the radio. I was 10 years old and ran to the record store to buy it.

"When I was in high school, and driving around with my friends, it was the period of 'Dreamgirls.' I'd listen to 'Stand By Me,' all the Aretha [Franklin] hits, the Drifters, Etta James. I also loved Fats Waller and Chopin."

Born in New York City, Krieger moved with his family "soon afterwards to White Plains, and then Ossining." He and his sister attended "a small, private school on the banks of the Hudson" in Scarboro, NY. "We both worked summer jobs to help pay our tuition.

"Their theatre was an exact replica of [Broadway's] Helen Hayes Theatre, which was then the Little Theatre. I was lucky enough to play in a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan shows: Iolanthe and Ruggidore. I got my practical experience of show business — raising and lowering the curtain, singing, playing the piano. I'm not self-assured unless a piano's around. It completes me."

I'd read that Krieger was working on a musical version of "Moonstruck," with a book by John Patrick Shanley (who adapted his 1987 screenplay) and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. "Not at the moment," he claims.

However, he and Birkenhead are working on the score for a musical based on the 1984 film "The Flamingo Kid," which starred Matt Dillon and Richard Crenna, and was directed by Garry Marshall. "The book is by Jim Magruder [ Triumph of Love] and Michael Mayer is directing. As soon as [Mayer's show] Spring Awakening opens, we will launch into it big time. We'll have a reading, then a workshop, and we'll do it [on Broadway]."

Does he have a favorite moment in the "Dreamgirls" movie? (Spoiler alert!). Krieger says, "My favorite parts are when Effie goes to visit Marty to get her career going again, and at the end when Curtis realizes the truth about Effie's child."

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As we speak the morning of Dec., 15, the delightful Anika Noni Rose is just back in New York from the Los Angeles premiere of "Dreamgirls" — with openings in Australia (January) and London (February) to come. She acknowledges that promoting the movie around the country and on TV has "been hectic."

On Broadway, there's just one opening night. "The difference," Rose says, "is that, although you're going to all these things, the performance is done. That's sort of lovely." And her performance was lauded in the Variety review. There's "fine supporting work," it notes, "especially [from] Rose, a bewitching stage performer ( Caroline, or Change) who shows equal assurance on film and terrific comic instincts."

Was there any aspect of her character that was difficult to capture? "I really felt that Lorrell was very clear for me. And that's really because of Bill [Condon] and his writing. Reading [the screenplay], I could hear her voice in my mind almost immediately. I connected with her very easily. That doesn't mean that the work was easy, but I could feel her. I didn't have to dig around. Sometimes, you get a script and it's a light character, and you spend your time trying to build her up and create a person where there is none. For Lorrell, I just added spice."

She also had to wear "extraordinary heels. At five-two-and-a-half, amazingly I was the shortest person. I was constantly propped up on heels that were severe, just so I could be seen in the same frame with the [other] ladies." So, as long as she was in camera range, it didn't matter if she fell and broke her neck? "No," jokes Anika with a laugh, "they didn't worry about that — as long as I could be seen on the way down. 'She'll be fine. Just get her some ice.'

"I actually did fall once while we were shooting, but that wasn't because of the heels. It was because we were using these mike cords and the cord wrapped around my foot. I got it off and it wrapped around my toe and Beyoncé's cord was twisted in mine and she was dancing around. I did a slow fall. I think one of the funniest things you can see is somebody falling slowly. They never stopped filming. The extras got quite a kick out of that."

How was working with Eddie Murphy? "He's magnificent. He's very quiet and very professional. He comes to work to work. He and I really connected very early on. We had an open current. That's what you want. You want the electricity to flow back and forth. There was an ease with us that I really enjoyed. A lot of people are talking about his singing and dancing, which is great, but he does some beautiful dramatic stuff that I don't think people have seen from him before. He's very vulnerable, and it's beautiful to look at."

Born in Bloomfield, CT, she's the daughter of John Rose, Jr. (who works for the city of Hartford) and wife Claudia. As a child, Anika wanted to be a veterinarian. "But I don't do well with animals in pain. I cry more than the animals. I'm terrible. They're precious and innocent. If it was a person, you could say, 'Well, that was dumb to ride your bike off that ledge.'"

Of course, veterinarians don't get to attend movie premieres.

"No, they don't," she agrees, laughing.

But they also don't have to wear extraordinarily high heels.

Again laughing, Rose concedes, "Maybe I should have been a veterinarian."

Continues the actress, "Fortunately, I figured out that I could sing and that struck a passion in me that nothing had until that point. I don't remember when I decided that I wanted to be an actress, but I trained in drama [earning a masters degree at the American Conservatory Theater]."

Several productions at ACT and the Berkeley Rep preceded Rose's 1999 arrival in New York. Her Broadway debut was as a replacement in the role of Rusty in Footloose. Shortly thereafter, she had a chance to play the Vatican. "I got a call. 'Would you like to do a concert in Rome [of Leonard Bernstein's Mass]?' I begged the stage manager, 'Please let me go.' That was an amazing, life-changing event. I was in Rome during 'Jubilee 2000.'" She later had the opportunity to do the Mass at Carnegie Hall. "And that was something! It's an extraordinary piece."

Cast as Dorothy in a TV movie-of-the-week version of The Wiz, Rose remembers, "I was so excited. Brian Stokes Mitchell and Sherie Rene Scott were supposed to be in it. I wanted to do it so badly. I went to Tiffany and bought a silver bracelet. I don't do that anymore. Now, I wait until the ink is dry [on a contract] and I've shot a scene before I buy myself anything. A few months went by, and [the project] was postponed. They kept postponing it until they finally called and said that it wasn't going to happen. I was devastated."

People sometimes look at her career "and think that it has been easy for me. Probably compared to somebody else's career, it has been. But it's been work and a struggle and a large amount of time when they hasn't been anything. Ultimately, everything happens for the best. Everything has been a step to something else. Had I done ' The Wiz,' I wouldn't have got Eli's Comin' [an Off-Broadway show comprised of Laura Nyro songs], and with the rest of the cast I got an Obie."

In 2001, she appeared with Lou Rawls in Me and Mrs. Jones at the Prince Music Theatre in Philadelphia. "That was supposed to go to Broadway, but it didn't. The cast was very upset. But that show was there to make friends. They're still my very, very good friends. Sometimes, things take you higher in life, but not necessarily on your resume. That's fulfilling, too."

Between the Public Theater production of Caroline, or Change and its Broadway transfer, Rose played Nettie (Celie's sister) in the first workshop of The Color Purple with La Chanze, Jesse L. Martin, and Adriane Lenox (playing Shug Avery). "La Chanze was just electric! I knew she'd win the Tony. She's a wonderful person — so sweet and bubbly and open."

Three years were spent creating Caroline. "Every six or eight months, there would be something else added. It was really a very collaborative piece of work between Tony [Kushner, book and lyrics], Jeanine [Tesori, music], the actors, and George [C. Wolfe, who directed]. I'd never been able to do something from page to stage. By the time it was done, the music was written to our voices.

"But I honestly didn't think it was the thing that was going to give me a Tony. That's always the case. Whenever you think something's going to be it, no, it's not. It's the time that you're not thinking about it at all."

Playing Emmie Thibodeaux in Caroline also earned Rose Theatre World, Lucille Lortel, and Clarence Derwent Awards. She recalls the moment her name was announced as a Tony winner as "just awesome — the full sense of the word. I felt extraordinarily blessed. After 'Anika,' I didn't hear anything. I didn't notice if they pronounced my name correctly." For the record, it's AH-neek-ah (which means goodness) No-nee (gift of God).

Among other credits are playing Cindy Lou in a Musicals in Mufti production of Carmen Jones and Lutiebelle in Purlie at Encores! Following "Dreamgirls," Rose filmed "One Part Sugar" (with Danny DeVito), "isn't quite finished" with a TV miniseries "Starter Wife" (with Debra Messing, filmed in Australia), and is set to make "Razor," starring Danny Glover. "It's a beautiful script. "Things are moving along. Right now, it's films and a little bit of TV, but I'm coming back to Broadway. That's my love, and the thing that keeps me true as a performer."

I mention that I also interviewed Henry Krieger for the column. "How dear is he; such a sweet, sweet man. If you ever get to meet him, you'll see that he truly is a really beautiful spirit." So is Anika Noni Rose.

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David Warren is very pleased with the latest play he's directed, The Voysey Inheritance, which was just extended until Jan. 21 at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company. And, he tells me, he's happily helming his second episode of "Desperate Housewives." Are there connections? But of course.

Voysey was adapted from Harley Granville-Barker's early 20th-century drama by David Mamet. Mamet is a co-founder (with William H. Macy) of the Atlantic, a working company and acting school. "Housewives" star Felicity Huffman (Mrs. William H. Macy) is a founding member of the Atlantic, where she frequently acted. (Incidentally, her only Broadway credit, to date, occurred in Mamet's Speed the Plow, when she succeeded Madonna.). A member of the Atlantic faculty, Warren has been friends with "Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry since they worked together back in the days when Cherry was an actor.

Recalls Warren, "I gave Marc his first professional acting job — at the La Jolla Playhouse, 20 years ago, when we were both 24. It was one of my first directing jobs. Des McAnuff hired me to do a children's musical that he'd written, Silent Edward. It was a TYA tour — Theater for Young Audiences — where you get in a van and go to a grade school at 10 in the morning and another one at noon. I was happy to get the job, as was Marc, who got his Equity card. Things have come full circle."

Warren's first "Housewives" episode, entitled "Nice She Ain't" (fifth show this season), aired Oct. 22. His latest entry, the 14th, which will be seen in six weeks, is as yet untitled. Since he wants to stay friends with Cherry, Warren can't divulge any plot developments. "But in the latest version of my script, something really shocking happens that involves a very complicated stunt."

Is there a difference in directing for television as compared to the stage? "Honestly, I'm just beginning to figure it out. The delightful surprise is that there are more similarities than I expected.

"The first thing you do is stage the scene. You have in mind how you want to shoot it, but you're staging it with actors. [The actors] barely know their lines. Once you've set the marks, they go away and you play with camera and lights for an hour until they come back and actually do it.

"Staging a scene [the first time] seemed so familiar and comfortable to me that I felt 'I know exactly how to do this. I know how to talk to the actors.' I'm very lucky, because there are really great actors on this show. They're actors with whom I was excited to work, and I think they were excited to have a director who can communicate with them.

"Then comes the giant difference. That's been on-the-job training. You have to think in little pieces when you're shooting. You don't think about the whole scene. You're shooting 360 degrees. Onstage, you do something from one angle. This is so counter-intuitive. Two actors sort of close each other off by talking to each other. You shoot your master, then you shoot over one character's shoulder and you're in the other character's face. It's Filmmaking 101, but for me it required shattering the architecture of a lot of my instincts.

"In television, you plan everything with your assistant director and your director of photography. Once you start to stage it, you have to be flexible. When you have a brilliant actress like Felicity Huffman, she starts to work and suddenly a scene makes a new kind of sense. It's staging differently than you expected. 'Oh, Felicity wants to do that at the table, and boy it works great over there. Back to the drawing board. Let's shoot it from here and here and here.' You plan the shots, and sometimes the plan has to be in stone because something is very complicated, but other times you just say, 'There go those ideas.'

"My key collaborator is the director of photography, the DP. There are two fantastic DPs on 'Desperate Housewives.' They're so good at what they do; they're so supportive and so encouraging. They've managed to both lead and follow in exactly the right proportions.

"Sometimes, I'll be staging the scene and in my peripheral vision I can see the DP suddenly going bug-eyed, which is his way of saying, 'We'll never be able to light it over there. Don't do that, please.' It's a really exciting collaboration.

"Another huge difference is that, in theatre, you spend rehearsals finding out what [the piece] is, and then freezing it — or at least freezing it as much as you can freeze a living thing. Actors continue to explore through the run. The stage manager might put in the report, 'This is playing a little differently.' Or he'll call me. I might go watch [a performance] and say, 'Here's what I like about it; here's what I don't like.' Basically, [the play at that point] has been created and finished.

"When you're shooting television, it's the opposite. When you rehearse, you're basically staging; you talk through what the beats are in the scene. When you're shooting, the last thing you want is for everything to be the same. Each take is a different interpretation of the scene. You want a lot of options in the editing room."

Switching focus to The Voysey Inheritance, Warren observes, "I'm very proud of the show. It was a completely charmed experience — from the first day of rehearsal to opening night. The cast could not be stronger."

The New York Times review noted that it was "fluently directed by David Warren," and that it featured "a cast without a weak member." Comments Warren, "Michael [Stuhlbarg] and Fritz [Weaver] are such sublime actors. They raise the bar very high. I adore Michael. He's a great actor and a consummate gentleman — kind and generous. Fritz was planning to retire and I said, 'Not yet. One more, please!'

"And Samantha Soule, who plays Alice, is a huge theatre-star-in-the-making. She's an extraordinarily skillful actress — with real comic timing, deep emotional reserves, and real chops. Theatre ingénues are sort of a dying breed. Most young women who are as brilliant and as pretty as Sam get out of Juilliard or NYU and move to Los Angeles and try to do television and movies. Who can blame them? J. Smith Cameron and Kathryn Meisle are two of my favorite actresses; they were classical ingénues who became great leading ladies. It's a thrill to have found Sam. She's someone with whom I hope to work again and again."

A native New Yorker, Warren has an older brother ("who's a psychiatrist") and younger sister ("a commercial-director rep"). Warren directed two plays in high school, "although I thought I was going to be an actor. When I got to college, I took a directing class — and I've never looked back." Warren's partner is actor Peter Frechette. "We've been together for 18 years."

Broadway credits include revivals of Holiday, Summer and Smoke, and Misalliance. He's worked extensively Off-Broadway and regionally. Is there a play that has given Warren the most satisfaction? "That's like asking, 'Which kid do you like the most?' "I've been very lucky and have had numerous extraordinary experiences. The ones that come to mind are Voysey Inheritance Nicky Silver's Raising Captivity and Pterodactyls; Holiday; Richard Greenberg's The Dazzle; Rope; Tom Donaghy's Minutes from the Blue Route; Hobson's Choice.... There are so many."

As for the immediate future, he tells me, "Looks like I'm going to direct an episode of another series, but the contract's not signed yet." Concerning theatre, he's "just turned down a bunch of things for the spring, because I want to stay here [in L.A.]. I'm considering committing to something in theatre for the late spring, once the TV shows go on hiatus. My hope is to go back and forth." Adds Warren, "I'm very excited by this career change. But it's not permanent, because I love theatre too much."