This 'Dreamgirl' says she's haunted by a stolen legacy
New movie is a nightmare for original star
NEW YORK -- Jennifer Holliday stood on a small stage, pouring out a song of hope and battling the odds. Her gut-wrenching voice tore from her throat with volcanic force, and her expression, all closed eyes and open mouth, was of a performer possessed, exorcising the anguish deep inside her.
The overflow crowd in the narrow Ars Nova performance space in Manhattan sat entranced, then exploded into whooping cheers as Holliday -- best known as the rotund actress who helped make the original "Dreamgirls" a smash hit -- belted her final triumphant note.
Opening her eyes to see the standing ovation, Holliday beamed, saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you" in a humble, almost sheepish voice.
She had agreed to the short, no-frills gig as a favor to Lewis Flinn and Steven Sater, two Broadway songwriters testing out new material. But the tunesmiths and audience had no clue how much the inspirational lyrics and thunderous response had pulled the singer from despair's edge.
Instead of being swept up in the hoopla over the new film adaptation of "Dreamgirls," Holliday is being swept aside.
"The timing of me singing those words came just at the right moment," Holliday said, relaxing after the show in a French restaurant in midtown Manhattan. "I needed to be singing a song of encouragement right now, I need those words myself . . . . I had just felt like they had taken everything away from me, had ripped my legacy from me."
The "they" in this case are Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures , and the makers of the $75 million movie musical "Dreamgirls," which opened Friday in limited release before going wide yesterday.
The movie, starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles , and Eddie Murphy, is the film version of the 1981 Broadway musical inspired by the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes that became a smash hit -- as well as a major cultural milestone for black Americans -- largely on the then-massive shoulders of Holliday.
To critics and audiences, Holliday's portrayal of Effie White, who is dumped just as the girl group she has fronted is poised for stardom, was the heart and soul of "Dreamgirls."
Her show-stopping rendition of the defiant anthem "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" brought audiences to their feet and became the hit musical's hallmark. Holliday, who was 21 when the show opened, won a Tony for outstanding actress in a musical.
She says her Tony Award-winning legacy, as well as the commemoration of the musical's 25th anniversary, has been ignored by the filmmakers, presumably to keep the spotlight focused on the movie's stars.
Paramount and DreamWorks declined to address why the most recognizable link to "Dreamgirls" appeared to be passed over.
Holliday was particularly heartbroken when friends told her that her version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going " plays in one of the film's trailers. In other words, her voice is being used to sell a production that shut her out.
In a Hollywood-style twist of fate, Holliday, 46, has unwittingly become a reflection of her most famous role.
She has worked steadily for the most part but has never come close to matching her glory days as Effie. Now, armed with her most powerful weapon -- her gospel-flavored roar -- she is striving to overcome the "Dreamgirls" noise and declare the value of her artistry to herself, those around her , and the world.
"Why is it necessary for them to wipe out my existence in order for them to have their success?" Holliday said. "It's scary that they can be so cruel. I know it's business, but why do they have to go to this extreme? I'm a human being. I need to work, too. Why do I have to die to make them a winner?"
Her eyes welled up as she looked off into the distance. She is a slimmer, softer , and prettier version of her 340-pound self -- she had gastric bypass surgery several years ago.
Post- "Dreamgirls," Holliday's professional career and personal life could produce enough material for several Broadway shows: A suicide attempt at 30. Bankruptcy. Two failed marriages. Bouts with depression.
She dropped out of the public eye for years, drawing a startled reaction when she showed up in 1997 -- 200 pounds lighter and more glamorous -- on "Ally McBeal" in a recurring role as a choir director. Many wondered if the weight loss affected the power of her instrument: "It didn't. The voice has never failed me. It's always been there."
Although "Dreamgirls" has not had a major stage production for more than 20 years, Holliday said she was keeping the torch burning, performing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" at the private parties, corporate dates , and gay nightclubs that have been her key source of income.
Some speculate that the filmmakers fear that comparisons to Holliday may dull the glow surrounding the performance of Jennifer Hudson, the former "American Idol" contestant who plays Effie in the film. Hudson has been considered an early favorite for an Oscar nomination.
Holliday maintains she was never approached about the movie or publicity.
"The only thing they asked for was permission to use five photos of me for the program and the coffee-table book," which she agreed to.
She also says she was "uninvited" to the film's premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre.
Representatives for the studios said they offered to host a private screening for her, but she declined.
After weeks of suffering privately with the constant "Dreamgirls" onslaught -- particularly the rave reviews surrounding the other Jennifer -- she said the final crushing blow came the night before her Ars Nova stint when she watched Hudson on "Entertainment Tonight" as Holliday's version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from the original cast recording played during the segment.
"When I saw that, I just gave up," she said. "I thought, 'This is a hopeless situation. I am being canceled out as an artist.' "
Sheryl Lee Ralph, who originated the role of Deena Jones, the lead singer of the Dreams who replaces Effie, says she has also been shut out of the "Dreamgirls" blitz (Knowles plays Deena in the film). Of the original "Dreamgirls" cast, only Loretta Devine has a cameo in the movie.
"Dreamgirls" was a phenomenon when it premiered Dec. 20, 1981, on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. The late Michael Bennett, its director and choreographer, was already a sensation with "A Chorus Line."
The show won six Tonys and ran for nearly four years, with its predominantly black cast and mix of rhythm and blues, Motown nostalgia, distinctive characters , and showbiz glitter.
Holliday's performance made her the toast of the town. But behind the curtain, the young gospel singer from Houston was reportedly difficult, deeply unhappy , and troubled. The demanding schedule left little time for a social life, and she drowned her loneliness in food.
Holliday finds it difficult to look back on her "big girl" days, refusing to view videos of her performances on YouTube.com. She lives in Harlem and admits she doesn't go out much, doesn't have a cellphone, doesn't do e-mail.
She is a ferocious reader of newspapers and magazines, loves courtroom shows on TV and watching movies -- primarily musicals -- until the sun comes up ("I am definitely not a morning person"). Holliday handles her own career -- no agent, no publicist, no manager.
She knows that the "Dreamgirls" avalanche is just starting, and she will not be able to ignore it. She has turned down most interviews, saying she wants to see the movie first before discussing it further. Still, she hopes to take advantage of the attention around "Dreamgirls." So far it hasn't been easy.
Two days after the "Dreamgirls" premiere, she placed an ad in Billboard and other trade publications saying she was available for bookings as the original "Dreamgirl."
"Just give me the microphone," she said with a lift in her voice.