Jennifer Holliday feels St. Louis' love in Muny's 'Dreamgirls'
Jennifer Holliday’s red-hot rendition of her star-making “Dreamgirls” signature song had Muny-goers whooping and whistling and wishing for more Monday night.
Tuesday afternoon, appearing rested and looking luminous in the glow of a flowing gold blouse, Holliday talked with the Beacon about her opening night performance. Even before a vast audience of more than 8,300 -- a 2012 season opening-night record -- Holliday found singing “And I Am Telling You” to be an intimate experience.
“I thought I wouldn’t be able to get any sense or presence of an audience but I was wrong,” Holliday said. “You can really feel them. I felt so much love and I was so grateful.”
Muny’s ‘good people’ lure Holliday in
The July 16-22 run of “Dreamgirls” may be the last chance for St. Louisans -- or anyone -- to see Holliday in the role that launched her career. Holliday, now 51, debuted her robust interpretation of “And I Am Telling You” when she originated on Broadway the role of Effie White in the musical rooted in the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
In 1982, she won a Tony Award for the part. She also garnered a Grammy Award for her recording of the song in which Effie refuses to accept the loss of the spotlight and her man. Between 1983 and 2000, she recorded more than a half-dozen additional hit songs. Her post-“Dreamgirls” stage highlights include touring company performances of “Sing, Mahalia, Sing,” a tribute to the late gospel great Mahalia Jackson.
As the 1980s came to a close, Holliday’s star began to fade. But during the next decade, she lost as much as half of her reported 400 pounds and attracted a loyal following in the gay community.
Enduring two divorces, a serious depression and a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, a slimmer Holliday has reprised her role as Effie and her show-stopping signature song in a variety of venues around the country. The Muny snagged her after scheduling “Dreamgirls” for the 2012 season when an Atlanta producer friend of Muny executive producer Mike Isaacson sang The Muny’s praises.
“[He said] ‘These are good people and I think they’ll take good care of you,’” Holliday said. “Also it was the 30th anniversary, and I thought, ‘Maybe just that one last hurrah, that one last time to bid Effie adieu and give her a proper sendoff as these young people start to become fans.’”
‘I want you to leave inspired’
Although she’s sung “And I Am Telling You” thousands of times over three decades, it’s a new experience for Holliday each time. Woven into her rendering of the song are the challenges, the heartaches and the triumphs of her own lifetime.
“When I first sang ‘And I Am Telling You’ over 30 years ago, it was just for the play, just Effie’s lament,” Holliday said. “Being a young girl, there’s no way I could have known that kind of passionate love and what it meant.”
And now? “It’s a song of survival for me to tell the world I’m not going, with each obstacle and each challenge that I face,” she said.
At the same time, the song’s not about Jennifer Holliday. “It’s bigger than me,” she said.
The song becomes an “out-of-body experience” that attaches to whatever feelings an audience member may be having.
“Say you’re in the middle of a bad relationship or a divorce and you want it to work out, or it just gives you that fighting spirit. Whatever it gives you, I want you to be able to see it,” Holliday said. “I don’t want it to be about how great my voice is, or high or powerful my voice is. It’s more about I’m trying to give you whatever you came for; I want you to leave inspired.”
Effie’s song will live on
The soaring St. Louis temperatures that settle into the low 90s and high 80s by curtain time, and are exacerbated by searing stage lights, don’t phase Holliday, who lives in Atlanta.
But even though she’s not looking to cool off after the show, she is looking for something to satisfy her appetite: she’s always starving after belting out her theme song at the end of Act 1.
To be in top shape for The Muny’s 8:15 performances, Holliday stops eating at 5:30. By the time “And I Am Telling You” is over, it’s nearly 9:30 and she has to stay hungry until after the second act, when she has two more big numbers.
“Last night they gave us a reception with real food, not just hors d'oeuvres -- chicken, pasta and the list went on,” Holliday said. “Then everybody wanted to take pictures and do autographs, and I was like, ‘If everybody wants to wait ‘till l after I eat and then do it, we can, but I will fall out; I’m famished.’”
When The Muny run is over, Holliday will take a month off before launching into a schedule of concerts and other performances. Even though the St. Louis staging of “Dreamgirls” marks the last time Holliday plans to reprise Effie, her “And I Am Telling You” anthem will endure.
“As long as I do concerts and as long as people want me to do the song, I’ll always sing it,” Holliday said. “It’s loved by people all over the world so I could never really not sing it.”