The original Broadway production, that is--but for her lack of dancing skills. In a sensational piece of trivia in Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, authors Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik wrote:
"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."
Set aside the lithe frame and imagine her as Effie White. Shiver-inducing. In fact, in her early years Whitney sang I Am Changing a lot. Her first major appearance on US television, as a 19-year-old being presented to the world by record mogul Clive Davis on The Merv Griffin Show in 1985, also saw her dipping into the Broadway songbook with a rendition of Home, from The Wiz.
But The Great White Way's loss was the pop world's immeasurable gain. I'd like to remember this gloriously voiced woman from her early years, when she made hit after hit after incredible hit and seemed about as beautiful at the end of the day as her miraculous vocals ("If the voice is a musical instrument," Time magazine declared, "hers is a Stradivarius.")
I don't think anybody--anybody--can ever sing Didn't We Almost Have It All?, for instance (my favorite Whitney song), and not suffer in comparison. That-force-of-nature performance is indelible, definitive, sui generis--intimate and majestic all at once. When she sang it, she was still only on her second album, and the halcyon peak of I Will Always Love You was still a few years away. Yet she already seemed legend material, or at least on a full sprint to it--especially when she could take something like the Star-Spangled Banner, which had been covered by literally hundreds of gifted artists before her, and give what many now consider the greatest rendition of it ever sung:
I was in high school when All At Once first rode the Pinoy radio airwaves, followed successively by You Give Good Love, Saving All My Love For You, The Greatest Love of All, How Will I Know, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Where Do Broken Hearts Go, All The Man That I Need, etc. This was the late '80s, when Madonna and Michael Jackson were the Queen and King of Pop (she still IS--and as a beki friend tweeted, with Whitney, Amy and Etta gone, Madge's health is now our collective concern), and New Wave was all the rage. But, like her aunt Dionne Warwick who had charted her own unique pop sound in the '60s-'70s in the midst of that era's rock n' roll explosion, Whitney's glistening power ballads also defined a genre all her own in the crazy-quilt pop repertoire of the '80s.
Let's face it, without Whitney, Regine Velasquez, for one, wouldn't be where she is today. For those who saw it live or on TV, the most memorable moment in the first-ever major concert of Regine's career (Narito Ako at the Araneta Coliseum) was the Songbird tearing into The Greatest Love of All midway into the show, and breaking into copious tears when the overflow crowd gave her a raucous standing ovation. (I still have this concert on betamax tape--I just had it checked for possible digitizing, sana ma-save pa.)
But, of course, nothing beats the original. You're reminded of that today, when news of Whitney's passing jolts you into sadness, sets your brain on a day-long loop of her peerless ballads, and, well, prods you into excavating that delicious tidbit you had read some years ago, about how she could have been in Dreamgirls, but for her two left feet. Then again, thank God for that.
PLUS: More favorite Whitney--
At the Soul Train Music awards, subbing for Gladys Knight and making the part her own with those strikingly youthful, supple pipes, in the company of titans Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick. I'm sorry, but they don't make singers like these anymore.
A medley of Didn't We Almost Have It All, A House Is Not a Home and Where Do Broken Hearts Go?, sung in a concert held aboard a US aircraft carrier just back from the Gulf War. Whitney at her most breathtaking.
One Moment in Time--her opening number at the 1988 Grammys, prefaced by video clips of triumphant US athletes at the Seoul Olympics. When this number was included in the compilation Grammy's Greatest Moments, the video was altered to feature Grammy winners through the years instead. Whitney's turn, though, needed no altering--the diva in top voice, looking like a million bucks, the audience worshipping at her feet, the number a virtual classic by its heavens-storming end.
You will be missed, Ms. Houston.