We're gonna love her: 'Dreamgirls' brings Jennifer Holliday to The Muny
Tony and Grammy Award-winner Jennifer Holliday’s been on top. She’s hit bottom. And she’s come back. Who can’t identify with that?
Holliday’s story is our story. Her pain and triumph resonate deep inside of just about anyone who’s ever been down and out. And she holds a special place in the hearts of many in marginalized groups: people of color, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and others who’ve suffered discrimination or disrespect.
There’s no, no, no, no way St. Louis is living without seeing Holliday again. Beginning Monday, July 16, we’ll experience the sweet agony of Holliday’s signature on-her-knees, demanding-us-to-love-her song, “And I Am Telling You,” when she reprises her iconic role of cast-aside singer Effie in “Dreamgirls” for seven nights at The Muny.
The last time many St. Louisans saw Holliday wasn’t in Forest Park but Tower Grove Park. Two years ago, she was the headliner at PrideFest, acknowledging the love she received from the LGBT community during her darkest days. As Holliday struggled with weight, divorce and depression in the 1990s, a mostly gay male following flocked to her nightclub performances after fair-weather fans moved on.
That kind of loyalty stems from a shared experience of being -- and sticking up for -- the underdog, according to Al Fischer, artistic director of St. Louis’ Gateway Men’s Chorus.
Holliday performs “And I Am Telling You” at the 2011 Washington, D.C., Pride celebration.
“It’s like loving Judy Garland -- she went through hell. Gay guys love people who rise above adversity and keep singing,” Fischer said, “It’s kind of a symbol for not being silent.”
Fischer’s love of Holliday is rooted in his teenage days working at a pizza parlor, when her “And I Am Telling You” was pictured on the jukebox along with another anthem about being true to one’s self: Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
In 1982, Fischer watched Holliday at the Tony's as she compelled the American public to sit up and listen.
“She was unashamed, making a beautiful, horrible gut-wrenching sound -- just taking it to church and telling it like it is. It was raw,” Fischer said.
Bittersweet memories for surviving twin
Last February, Brianna Reed and her twin sister Tiana both performed in McCluer High School’s presentation of “Dreamgirls,” a story loosely based on The Supremes' rise to stardom in the 1960s. It was an ambitious project for the more than four dozen teens involved, complete with 48 songs, a vocal coach and a seamstress who created 15 costume for The Dreams, alone. A $5,000 grant from the Maritz Arts and Education Fund for Teachers, an Arts and Education Council program, helped make it possible.
So impressed was the drama-club sponsor of Vashon High School, that she asked the McCluer students to perform there to inspire Vashon students, who’d just endured the murder of their homecoming queen.
But before that show could take place, tragedy also struck at McCluer.
Tiana Reed was killed April 1 in a drag-racing automobile accident.
At the performance, Brianna Reed told Vashon students, “We came; we tried to lift your spirits and ended up having to lift our own.”
“Then I explained what happened. It was a kind of bittersweet moment,” Reed said.
Brianna Reed is among 20 McCluer students invited by The Muny to see Holliday in “Dreamgirls” on Saturday, July 21.
“I think going to The Muny to actually watch ‘Dreamgirls’ will be an exciting experience; and I think my sister will be there with me in spirit because that’s the last show that we did,” Reed said.
Overseeing the McCluer production of “Dreamgirls” was the school’s director of theater, Doug Erwin. Not only was the production an amazing experience for the students, it’s a ticket to the future for many of them. The show, nominated for 24 Cappies Awards for student performances, garnered $151,000 in total Cappies scholarships for participating McCluer students.
“Every win was a $2,500 scholarship, in addition to the $1,000 nomination scholarships, all to Lindenwood,” Erwin said.
The McCluer students’ Muny trip includes a backstage tour and meeting some of the cast, including nationally known St. Louis actor Ken Page.
“They may or may not get to meet Jennifer Holliday but that would be wonderful,” Erwin said.
Meeting Holliday is more likely than not, according to Laura Peters, director of Muny marketing and publicity. “I think there’s a good chance,” Peters said.
The McCluer students’ trip to The Muny is part of the theater company’s annual invitation to a group of students to enjoy a free show, an event that can be life-changing.
“So many get their inspiration for theater in high school. That’s where you get the bug, where you get your first taste of it,” Peters said.
History of diversity
“Dreamgirls” is likely to boost the diversity of Muny audiences next week. Drawing more people of color to the Muny is not a new goal, but one in which steady but slow progress can be seen.
“I’ve been here for 21 summers, and I can see a big difference,” Peters said about people of color being in the audience. “It used to be less than 3 percent; now it’s 5 to 10 percent on a good night and I’ll tell you when it comes to ‘Dreamgirls’ and even ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie,’ it was appreciably higher.” (Leslie Uggams was one of the stars of this year's production of 'Millie.')
In its 94-year history, The Muny has featured a number of shows with black or nearly all-black casts. In 1968 and 1971, Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway performed in an all-black “Hello, Dolly!,” and Bailey did a one-woman show in 1972. “Porgy and Bess” was staged in 1964, 1977 and 1988. In 1977, an all-black “Guys and Dolls” had a Muny run, “The Wiz” took the stage in 1982, and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” played out under the stars in 1994, bringing Page back home to St. Louis. In 2006, Nina Simone’s daughter Simone performed in “Aida.”
The Missouri History Museum is creating its own historical record of female entertainers of color with St. Louis ties. Holliday’s boundary-breaking work as well as her Muny appearance qualify her for inclusion in the museum’s upcoming video documentary.
Featured along with Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker and Tina Turner, Holliday’s in good company. She’s a resilient, shining star, according to KMJM radio personality Arika Parr, who’s involved with the documentary.
“You can’t help but root and cheer for her, much like her character, Effie,” Parr said, in an email. “Especially in a time when we dismiss people so quickly, Ms. Holliday is still in the building.”
“She’s a legend,” said psychologist and educator Kira Hudson Banks, also a regular contributor to the Beacon’s Voices section.
Hudson Banks, who studies race relations and intergroup interactions, is hopeful that Holliday’s appearance and the production of “Dreamgirls” will bring about an important local conversation. A combination of factors including the LGBT community’s support of Holliday during her fading-star days and the show’s racial themes serve as starting points for discussion.
“So often it does take an incident or an issue to have this dialogue,” Hudson Banks said. “Outside of an incident or an issue, let’s take a really exciting, landmark, community-specific event and use it as a launching pad to think critically about these issues.”
Where: The Muny in Forest Park
When: 8:15 Monday-Sunday, July 16-22
How much: $10-$70