Groan, not another pun, you say. Well, indulge me, I'm just all giddy here after seeing for the first time the movie trailer of "Dreamgirls" on YouTube.
I had my doubts about this singular Broadway musical getting a good enough transfer to film (Exhibits A and B: "Rent" and "The Producers"), and I still do. But, judging from the sneak peak alone, the movie looks gorgeous, and may yet be another gleaming showcase of black pulchritude and talent (like Taylor Hackford's "Ray"). Check out the trailer and a brief behind-the-scenes feature:
Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's "Dreamgirls" is one of my favorite musicals, not least because of its majestic, militant R&B sound--something we don't normally hear from a Broadway song-and-dance spectacular. Motown and R&B have made occasional forays into the musical stage, notably in Menken-Ashman's "Little Shop of Horrors" and, more recently, Coleman-Gasman's "The Life" and Shoenfeld-McPherson's "Brooklyn, the Musical." But "Dreamgirls" is the only musical that celebrates, amplifies, mourns for and builds on the loud, sweaty, sexy, take-no-prisoners strain of R&B that percolated in the fringes of American music in the 1960s, before the genre was gentrified--remade into a "lighter sound," as one of the show's producers put it--to enable it to cross over to the pop charts.
"Dreamgirls" does this musical memorializing by way of a very adult story: the rise to fame of a Supremes-like trio of black female singers, and the ugly baggage that came with it--everything from free-for-all backstabbing and bed-hopping to the larger issues of bigotry, racism, identity, bribery in the music business, the costs of assimilation and artistic sellout, the backstage hell that undergirded onstage perfection.
Reviewing the show for the New York Times on Dec. 20, 1981, drama critic Frank Rich was grandiloquent in his praise: "When Broadway history is being made, you can feel it. What you feel is a seismic emotional jolt that sends the audience, as one, right out of its wits. While such moments are uncommonly rare these days, I'm here to report that one popped up at the Imperial [Theater] last night. Broadway history was made at the end of the first act of Michael Bennett's beautiful and heartbreaking new musical, 'Dreamgirls.'"
What was this Act I finale that had Mr. Rich, then called "The Butcher of Broadway" for his unforgiving reviews, waxing ecstatic about? It was the scene where Effie White, the temperamental diva and lead singer of The Dreams, learned she'd been replaced in the group and, worse, that her man was leaving her. Whereupon Jennifer Holliday, in the role that would catapult her to the Broadway stratosphere, launched into the musical's most famous aria, "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)."
Here's a rare clip of the original cast performing this scene in the 1982 Tony Awards:
"Dreamgirls" and "A Chorus Line" are the crown jewels in Michael Bennett's consummate career as Broadway director and visionary. The show got 13 Tony nominations and won six (though not the Best Musical plum), and ran for 1522 performances. Despite its success, however, it eventually acquired cult status when its musical score of some 40 songs was emasculated in the original soundtrack album. For years, only this vastly truncated version of the musical was available commercially. In 2001, a complete live concert version was recorded, starring a fabulous cast led by Lillias White, Audra McDonald and Heather Headley. At long last, "Dreamgirls" was whole again.
Listen to Lillias White sing her own version of "I Am Changing," the powerhouse anthem in the second act:
Now, let's see if Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and their movie peers have it in them to do justice to the movie version of "Dreamgirls."
Regine Velasquez won the grand prize at the 1989 Asia Pacific Song Festival by belting out "And I Am Telling You" in the second round of the contest (she sang "You'll Never Walk Alone" in the first round). Here she is during her recent "Twenty" concert reliving her contest triumphs with a medley of the two songs plus "In Your Eyes" (her "Tanghalan ng Kampeon" piece). Say what you will about Ms. Velasquez's trademark birit, the fact that she was hitting those notes while under the weather is simply amazing.
Atlantis Productions' Bobby Garcia staged a Manila version of "Dreamgirls" in 2003, starring Bituin Escalante in the role of Effie White. It was "a performance for the ages," I wrote in my review for the Inquirer. I mean it even now--even after having learned that Ms. Escalante lost her voice midway through the run, and had to struggle with the musical's punishing notes right up to the last day. On her good nights, though, no one was better. Jett Pangan was also terrific as James Thunder Early, and Tex Ordonez stole some scenes with her fearless vocals. But the real revelation for me was Nyoy Volante--yes, the acoustic balladeer--who understudied Mr. Pangan and gave a fiery, funny, heartbreaking performance as the R&B livewire. Who'd have known?
Lastly, a sensational piece of trivia from "Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time," by Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik:
"During casting of the original production [of 'Dreamgirls'], a young singer auditioned for the ensemble and, though her singing was extraordinary, her inadequate dancing skills caused Michael Bennett to reject her. Her name? Whitney Houston."