arts 12.11.06

Dreamgirls 1981

By Charlie Suisman
Soon after I started working as a production assistant on the Broadway production of Dreamgirls, I was hanging out in the green room with the chorus members. Since I was the new kid, and most of them had been working on workshops of the show for many months, I was keeping to myself.

But I was watching and listening. The actors seemed to me then, and still do now, a group of extraordinarily talented performers and extraordinarily lovely people. On this particular morning, they were talking about a fairly obscure pop/soul song from the early 70s called "Right on the Tip of My Tongue" but they couldn't remember the group that had sung it. "Uh…" Heads turned toward me as I spoke up. "That was Brenda and the Tabulations." Silence. They stared for a second. And then they all laughed. "Yes!" "That's it!" "Man, are you on the right show!" From that moment on they accepted me unconditionally, which was a relief because I had already fallen in love with them.

I almost didn't get the job. I was working in a theater manager's office called Marvin Krauss Associates and when Dreamgirls was just about to start rehearsals, I pleaded with them to let me work on it. I had to work on it. Growing up, friends were listening to the Dead and Neil Young, and I liked them fine, but I loved the Supremes. The office said it was okay with them but I'd have to get a thumb's up from director Michael Bennett.

So one morning I took the subway down from 52nd Street to 890 Broadway, which was the building Bennett had bought and converted into his office, rehearsal space, and HQ for various arts groups. At that time, the summer of 1981, I had no idea where 890 Broadway was — the neighborhood just north of Union Square was a grim, forlorn place. (Bennett must have had the foresight, as he had in so much else, to see that the area was ripe for transformation.)

In the history of job interviews, this was one of the shortest. He was in an empty rehearsal room and I was brought in to meet him. He looked at me and asked, "Are you quiet?" "Yes," I said. "What sign are you?" "Scorpio," I said. "Oh, no, no, no," he said, ending the conversation. I must have looked utterly crestfallen because he looked at me again and gave me one of his impish smiles and said, "All right." And that was it, I was in.

I remember the rehearsal period as a swirl of movement, not unlike the show itself, with Bennett at the center. He often wore a red baseball cap to rehearsals — the show's diminutive hot spot: fiery, focused, exacting, generous, warm. The show had been through several workshops and was still, even in its pre-Broadway rehearsal period (and all through its out-of-town tryout), in a constant state of change.

Composer Henry Krieger and lyricist/bookwriter Tom Eyen would come in daily with new scenes and new songs which Bennett would hear, and more often than not, reject. They wrote enough material for several musicals. But Bennett drove them relentlessly and those two talented, hardworking and very good guys kept delivering until Bennett had exactly what he wanted. I recall Frank Rich characterizing Krieger's score as 'profligate' with melody, which I think Rich meant as a compliment to describe a score filled to bursting with tuneful songs and themes, but I doubt he knew just how many melodies Krieger had created for the show.

One song that didn't get touched was the end-of-the-act number (in both senses) "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," sung by Jennifer Holliday after she's dumped from the group and as the producer's girlfriend. The role for Holliday was fraught in all kinds of ways, and she and Bennett had clashed during the workshops, until, life imitating art, he fired her. But she and Bennett worked it out and she was back in the role on the first day of rehearsal.

I'll never forget sitting in the green room when someone jumped up and said, "She's singing it!" and people quickly rushed to the hallway, outside the closed-door rehearsal room, to hear Jennifer pick up where she had left off. I had never heard "And I'm Telling You" or Jennifer sing before, and neither had several of the new cast members, but all of us in that hallway were transfixed, completely rooted to the spot, listening to Jennifer heartwail that number. Even though she was singing behind a closed door, the electricity crackled through the hallway. I'll never forget it.

The Boston tryout is the period I remember with the most pleasure. Despite tech week's '10 out of 12s' — a grueling schedule of ten-hour rehearsals out of a period of twelve hours, the shared purpose, being out of New York, and the excitement over the show created a camaraderie among the cast, crew, designers, and everyone else working on the show. (Well, among most of us: Phylicia Ayers-Allen, who was in the chorus, had a permanently aggrieved look on her face and her demeanor made it clear that she was made for better things. And who's to say she wasn't right, since she went on to become Phylicia Rashad and to play Bill Cosby's wife on The Cosby Show.)

Boston audiences were flipping for the show. In fact, it posed a particular problem for Bennett. I can still remember him giving notes to the company after one of the first performances as everyone sat in the back section of the orchestra of the Shubert. When it came to Holliday's big number, he paused. Astonishingly, it was receiving ovations well before she finished and people were even giving it a standing ovation while she still singing the last measures. There was supposed to be an onstage reprise by the Dreamgirls after Holliday's number to contrast with what was going on backstage but the audience couldn't be contained. Bennett confided to the cast, "I don't know how to end the first act because I've never in my life seen an audience react like that."

Inside the theater, Boston loved it. Outside the theater was another story. The first time I joined some of the cast to go out for a drink we needed taxis. And they made me — a white guy — hail the taxis, since many Boston cabs in 1981 would not willingly stop to pick up young black people. It was an eye-opening and utterly painful thing to experience for me, so I could hardly begin to imagine what it was like for them. This past Friday, the Times had an article about Boston making progress in its acceptance of blacks, but it seems long, long overdue.

By the time we got to New York, we knew the show was strong and could be a hit. Frank Rich came twice to the previews, which we took to be a good sign. Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes, visited backstage and she was as lovely and gracious as everyone said she would be. Florence Ballard, the one who was ousted from the group, suffered grievously after leaving the Supremes, and had died in 1976 at age 32. I don't remember now if Diana Ross ever actually came to see it, but I do remember clearly her one sentence smackdown of the whole project, which quickly made its way back to us: "My life isn't a f***ing musical," she said.

Well, it was now. And the show opened to raves and ran for 1,521 performances and won six Tony awards. The movie version opens here on December 15th and wide on December 25th. There's a nice symmetry about that since the show opened at the Imperial on December 20th, 25 years ago.

One of the show's lyrics is "Dreamgirls will never leave you" and, indeed, it never has.

[Pictured: Loretta Devine (Lorrell), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Deena), Deborah Burrell (Michelle), Jennifer Holliday (Effie). At far left in rear, director Michael Bennett (with red baseball cap)]
More Dreamgirls
It's fine to play the contrarian, as NY Mag's film critic David Edelstein does in his review this week of "Dreamgirls" but he's talking out of his posterior for a lot of it. Edelstein writes, "In the original Broadway production, there were montages, too: Michael Bennett was celebrating and parodying the language of movie musicals." That's nonsense. First of all, montages are not particular to movie musicals. Second, Bennett developed a fluid, cinematic style for the show since it covered so much time and distance. But it's ridiculous to say he was celebrating the language of movie musicals and simply wrong to claim he was parodying them.

Edelstein lets loose this howler, too: "As someone who considers the Phil Spector Motown era one of the high-water marks in the history of music, I feel bound to say I don't think this is the whole story — but then, Dreamgirls doesn't have actual Supremes songs." There was no Phil Spector era at Motown; Spector had his own label and his own sound.

forty-second street

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