Will 'Dreamgirls' song stop their show?
Where do you go after "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"?
The showstopping centerpiece of "Dreamgirls" is the Mount Everest of ballads for women of a certain vocal, and often physical, stature. Those who can climb it, do.
It is the song that is plucked from the arsenal when it is time to bring down the house. With its mountainous peaks and careering emotions from defiance to desperation, it is unleashed to showcase a singer's range, sense of dynamism, and emotional connectedness. It is a monster.
When that monster is fed well, as it was by Jennifer Holliday in the original Broadway production 25 years ago and Jennifer Hudson in the recent film adaptation -- both palpably summoning years of anger, grit, determination, self-doubt, and fear -- it offers great rewards. Holliday won a Tony, Hudson this week an Oscar.
Heck, even 12-year-old Bianca Ryan won last year's reality competition "America's Got Talent" by singing the totally age-inappropriate song. And in the latest display of the song's power, last week "American Idol" contender Lakisha Jones threw down the gauntlet to her competitors and dropped the jaws of the judges, and likely many home viewers, with an abridged version.
That's how big "And I Am Telling You" is: just 90 seconds of it is enough to blow us away. It is a song with so much authentic soul that Michael Bolton is probably still trying to figure out a circumstance in which he could credibly sing it.
But once you have scaled "And I Am Telling You," the drop is precipitous. How do you get people back in the house to listen to other, lesser songs at a lower altitude? Does the song itself, and the character of Effie White, for whom it was created, become permanently lodged in the audience's mind, making it hard to see the singer as anything else?
Delivered at the end of the first act of "Dreamgirls," the song comes as Effie is unceremoniously dumped from girl group the Dreams and the bed of mentor Curtis Taylor, in favor of the slimmer and less soulful Deena Jones. The true source of the song's strength is how we relate to Effie's helplessness and her desire to will herself back into mattering.
Like Hudson, Holliday became an instant star thanks to the show, but the road after "Dreamgirls" was bumpy. She released some spotty albums, did some more strong but less-heralded stage work and, as she told E! on Oscar day, was broke and suicidal by her 30th birthday. She eventually lost weight, and revived her career playing a gospel singer on "Ally McBeal." Now in her mid-40s and still in phenomenal voice, she is a motivational speaker and occasionally reprises her "Dreamgirls" role onstage, including an upcoming run in Atlanta. (She is certainly not the first to do this; witness Carol Channing playing Dolly Levi into her 70s).
During the promotion for the "Dreamgirls" film, Holliday was fleetingly mentioned. She publicly spoke of being hurt that a call for a cameo role never came, while fellow original "Dreamgirl" Loretta Devine does appear.
Holliday eventually came around, telling E! that she was proud of Hudson and pulling for her successor to win the Oscar. That said, she also chose to perform "And I Am Telling You" atop the Roosevelt Hotel on Sunday, overlooking a scant audience in and around the red carpet, hours before the Oscar hubbub began at the Kodak Theatre.
On one hand it was an endearingly Effie-like attempt to retain her grip on the character. Yet that tenacity made the song's pathos seem even more naked. She was telling us she's not going, but the moment was spectral, as if she was already gone.
Will Hudson suffer a similar fate? If so, it won't be for lack of talent but because of Hollywood's timidity.
Try to imagine for a moment Hudson in another role, especially a non-singing one. Take away the parts played by Queen Latifah over the last few years and what can you picture her in? Hudson's options, like Holliday's before her, are limited. Any nonmusical role will pale in comparison to the part of Effie, and Hollywood's narrow views on size, beauty, and, to a lesser extent, color, limit the parts for which she will be considered. Say hello to the sassy black best friend, the prim church girl who spreads her wings, and, eventually, the wisecracking matron.
Now in the music world, try to imagine Hudson, Holliday, or current "Idol" contestant Jones singing any other popular current song. Sure, they could all do it with one octave tied behind their backs, but if Jones sings something like KT Tunstall's breezy pop confection "Suddenly I See" on this week's show, won't it seem like a step down? It will be as if she fired all her ammunition in the first week and may have to work with blanks from now on, not unlike season one favorite Tamyra Gray who also sang "And I Am Telling You" early in the proceedings and was rewarded with an early exit.
Of course, it's impossible to know what will happen. If Jones continues to pick great songs she might just hang in there and go where Mandisa -- season five's plus-size diva -- could not. And unlike Holliday, Hudson benefits from the much broader exposure of a major feature film as opposed to the more limited Broadway audience, and not to put too fine a point on it, a smaller waistline. We knew she could sing, but she truly surprised us when her acting chops matched her vocal skills. If she and record executive Clive Davis cook up the right songs and her agent fights for unconventional parts, Hudson may save herself the struggle that Holliday faced.
It's been a few decades since Holliday's star shone bright. Perhaps conditions for the acceptance of big, beautiful, black women in the 21st century have improved. I hope so, because it would be a pleasure to see "And I Am Telling You" become a launching pad as opposed to a final destination.