December 15, 2006, Dreamworks/Paramount 130 min.
It seems preposterous that Dreamgirls took 25 years to reach the screen--especially given how Michael Bennett's stage direction was noted for its cinematic fluidity. Altho a 4-year smash on Bway, the subsequent years didn't quite expand the show's cachet; with no London mounting (until 2017), a disappointing road tour, and the burden of a complex production with a large cast, making it a poor candidate for regional or amateur licensing, the show took on the aura of cult status over its first two decades. Those who revered the OCR which producer David Geffen released as a polished pop album (not unwisely--it sold well) were deprived of at least half the score, getting scant sense of its complexity and largess, demonstrating the brilliance of Henry Kreiger (in his Bway debut) for translating pop idioms into musical theater lingua. (For my money, his mastery of setting recitative to melody is far superior to the likes of Lloyd Webber.) Twenty years on, an Actors Fund benefit with an All-Star Cast, (and with musical direction by a rising Seth Rudetskty) was recorded live, giving us audio access to the show in its full glory. With the surprise success of the millennial films Moulin Rouge and Chicago, Hlwd reawakened to the musical, and looking to the shortlist of recent Bway hits, Dreamgirls finally got its due.
Of the dozens of Bway musicals trafficking in "show business," scant few represented the Black experience. An early outlier, Show Boat dealt with racism, miscegnation, and even white appropriation of black music; but little more was explored until the 1967 Jule Styne/Comden & Green show Hallelujah, Baby!--which chronicled the progress of African-Americans on stage from the turn of the century up to the Civil Rights Era (without the lead characters ever aging--yes, it was another concept from Arthur Laurents, who also penned Anyone Can Whistle.) It was well-intentioned and won the Tony (in a weak year--tho months after it had closed) but had the taint of white liberal pandering; and let's face it, sounded a bit old-fashioned next to the concurrent release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which in no way should diminish the beauty of the score--under-appreciated Bway gold (Styne won his only Tony for this one, not Gypsy or Funny Girl or Bells Are Ringing or Peter Pan or Gentlmen Prefer Blondes) with scarcely a dud in the show. But by 1967 black voices were prominent thruout pop music, with a decidedly modern sound. Still another 14 years would ferment before Dreamgirls arrived to tell the story behind that rise.
It was ostensibly about The Supremes, of course, except it was really more about them as archetypes than biographical figures--which goes for all the characters. And tho the creative team was as white as Hallelujah, Baby's, Tom Eyen's book felt more reportorial than fabricated. Laurents penned the former as part apologia. Eyen fleshed out full human beings--as ugly and conniving as they are warm and generous. His scenes crackle with tension and excitement within the brevity necessary to accommodate such a full score. The exposition is never clumsy; it segues smoothly into recitative. Eyen's lyrics (rarely mentioned) aren't merely servicable, they find clever undercurrents reflecting the story and relationships while masquerading as generic pop, R&B, and disco hits. More than perhaps what's fair, Michael Bennett gets credited with creating Dreamgirls, which is half-true, but the now-iconic director/choreographer really needed resurrection after the anemic Ballroom proved such a letdown following A Chorus Line. That electric energy was back, in a literal sense as Bennett set up three towers of whirling lights around a minimalist flowing set, which suggested cinematic movement. But the show is on a fundamental level more Henry Kreiger's than Bennett's. The score is nearly wall-to-wall sound. Much of Eyen's dialogue has been lifted (and elevated) into musical recitative that is at times as piquant as the main numbers.
From the very start the show tosses off four throwaway tunes at a talent contest, most of which serve as background to the backstage intros of the main characters--while layering in their now & future dynamics. The not-yet-Dreamettes song, "Move," is a good facsimile of a minor Holland-Dozier-Holland hit--as are most of the Dreams' group songs. The show's two-decade timeline takes us up to disco and the beginnings of rap, with songs in various genres. So how unlikely is it that in a show full of ready-made pop hits, its one well-known/signature song is an R&B aria that's become the "Rose's Turn" for big black women: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" which for all its defiance proves in vain. (For those with a sense of humor, it's a natural for funerals--as once seen in Six Feet Under) And like "Rose's Turn" the song ends, or should I say, explodes on the final word (which is of course the very subject). . . ME! Yet Effie is not only going, she's gone as the second act begins. While Deena negotiates the demands of stardom, Effie's struggle & resurrection are the pillars of the second act; including a last minute, "You're the Daddy!" reveal that could be viewed as somewhat racist were it not so touching. But there's no getting around the fact that it sags in the second half, and never recovers the dramatic tension that ends the first. Gypsy has Rose bringing down the house in Act One, but she tops even that at the end of the show. Dreamgirls, alas, loses steam--tho, and this is important, it doesn't leave us disappointed; it satisfies.
The original Bway cast was dominated by acclaim over Jennifer Holliday's star turn as Effie. She tore the theater apart with her gospel-on-steroids performance, and won every conceivable award. But this didn't anchor a further Bway career, nor precede much of a recording one, either--tho she did make albums (and disco no less). A mountain of a woman initially, Holliday slimmed down over time; beneficial to her health, no doubt, if not her physical stature. And talented as they all were, none of the '81 cast became true stars, even along Shubert Alley. (Tho Loretta Devine, in middle-age became a frequent guest on TV dramas.) By the time of the 2001 concert there were true Bway stars like Audra Macdonald, Heather Headley, Lilias White, Norm Lewis & Brain Stokes Mitchell to give a royal polish. But in the Millennium there were even more bonafide black movie stars to justify a commercial "risk" in turning Dreamgirls into a movie. As the top pop diva of the '00s, Beyonce (here billed with her last name as well: Knowles) was tailor-made for Deena, having been virtually playing her in real life. As a recent Oscar winner, Jamie Foxx added dramatic cachet to impressario Curtis. And who'd have thought Eddie Murphy (once a box-office champ) would be so ideal for a musical, embodying James Thunder Early to the depth of his desperation. And here was the platform to "introduce" Jennifer Hudson, the fleshy and sassy American Idol runner-up who had since been beating her own drum to ever rising fortunes. Is there a black woman who hasn't felt the betrayal and rejection that Effie suffers? Not to diminish Hudson's perf but I'm sure she didn't have to dig deep to access Effie's rage. There was one rising Bway light chosen for Lorell: the sweet Rose called Anika Noni. Which makes the Dreams a pretty starry crew. Hinton Battle was another Bway recruit; a 3-time Tony winner, including one for his supporting role in Henry Kreiger's 1985 musical, The Tap Dance Kid; Battle is little used. I don't know where they found Keith Robinson ("Power Rangers," I am told--not that I know what that is), but I don't care, he's just fine as C.C. And Danny Glover shows up as old-school manager, Marty. You could say it was a dreamcast for Dreamgirls.
Hlwd was still skittish about musicals so once again two studios divided the risk: Paramount & Dreamworks. After Chicago, Rob Marshall was top choice for musical helmer in Hlwd, but Bill Condon was the one who'd found the key in translating that show to screen, and with directing credits as well (Gods & Monsters, Kinsey) he was deserving of this assignment. There wasn't much he needed to change from Eyen's book; whole scenes survive verbatim. A few musical passages are now spoken, but not that many, and the score survives, not only intact, but with a trio of new songs--one for each of the Dreams (all of which were Oscar nominated--in a rather weak year; Melissa Etheridge won for an environmentalist anthem to ride Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth documentary.) Condon's changes seem to be mostly geographic. The opening talent contest is now in Detroit, not the Apollo in NY; the Dreams debut their act in Miami not Cleveland, after Jimmy Early implodes at the Fountainbleu. Such are the subtleties of Condon's rewrite. Perhaps his best contribution is to capture the final moment when Curtis realizes Effie's daughter is also his own, during the farewell concert. It's enuf to induce a lump in the throat if not a few tears. But with lesser script repairs, Condon was able to focus on directing, and it's hard to argue with his choices, from casting to production design to editing. With so much of the film pure stage performance, care was taken to present a variety of venues--clubs, theaters, niteries, TV &
recording studios--all shown with fancy filmwork (under sizzling lighting by nonpareil Bway masters Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) capturing the temperature of the audiences. So much music is heard in the opening talent contest, while overlapping the expositionary narrative that you hardly notice when the characters start singing offstage outside the context of performance. But despite frequent streams of recitative, this is a show that knows when to stop for breathing room; moments that need only dialogue. Something that would benefit other sung-thru epics like Evita and Miss Saigon.
Condon starts the movie with a drumbeat and flashes of blue light on stage ephemera, before hitting the act (The Step Sisters) in full lights in front of a rocking audience. There's real energy and excitement in the way the exposition unveils thruout this opening talent contest. And by the time Early's "Fake Your Way to the Top" transitions from a backstage lesson to onstage performance there's little doubt the film is in good hands. Eyen and Bennett laid out the perpipatetic narrative breathlessly on stage, but there's nothing like the chilling moment when the Dreamettes lose the contest and the curtain falls like a slice of Siberia; the audience's applause vanishing into cold silence. There's a good deal of montage and story-movement thru "Fake" and on to "Cadillac Car" which in one song establishes Curtis Taylor's postition as a car dealer, C.C.'s cred as a songwriter, and the absorption of a black "race" record into white culture. We get the point made in the white-washing of "Cadillac Car," but, really, was anything this square? It's virtually a lullaby. Yet this atrocity leads to one of the musical's highlights, "Steppin' to the Bad Side"--the very model of the mid-first-act showstopper that every great musical has. The movie does it justice, ending in full onstage performance with a male chorus on rising platforms. (The CD has a bonus disc with a stunning audition video of the entire number by choreographer Fatima Robinson filmed in a dance studio.)
With Miami comes a new Jimmy Early: smooth crooner for the largely Jewish crowd. I find his song a persistent ear worm, and Murphy delivers one of his best moments
spitting out "I Want You" as a verbal assault on the prim fur-clad white newlywed in the front row. Of course this stunt destroys his crossover viability, but paves the way for the Dreams to be born in the rescue--beginning the swift, winding path to Effie's elimination. And I am telling you there's no definitive track of this song. Jennifer Holliday made it a Bway legend but Lilias White or Amber Riley take no back seat, yet Jennifer Hudson was the one to lay it down on film--which in no small measure led her to an Oscar.
The musical's subtext (female empowerment) takes over the second act--expressed thru its girl group, controlled and exploited by men. Effie suffers the worst for her ferocity and size--but climbs back embracing those very qualities. Beyonce plays the most held-back Deena I've seen; in character & performance she remains a bit of a wallflower until the second half. As a star she fights for her own instincts; Kreiger gives her a new anthem, "Listen"--which in truth sounds nothing like music from the pic's period, but more to the image Beyonce holds for her fans. Lorrell's growth is in gaining the upper hand on a hopeless affair with the married James Early, but her excoriating "Ain't No Party" is MIA--all the more a shame as Anika Noni Rose is such a vibrant presence. The pic's advantage is in showing the contrast between Deena's Hlwd lifestyle vs. Effie's doldrums in Detroit. A number of musical montages exhibit period details such as posters, album covers, film & TV graphics--all done with uncanny accuracy.
Curtis has built an empire worthy of a glass house and Deena into a goddess from Vogue. Meanwhile, broke & unemployed, single-mom Effie draws welfare and dodges ghetto riots--a bit that leads into a new song, "Patience" made as a demo by Early (with Lorrell)--tho quickly shot down by Curtis as a "message" song. Poor Jamie Foxx--top billed and in the leading role, but playing an unlikeable asshole and unrepentant opportunist. Curtis has a lot to answer for. Not only does his rejection of "Patience" send Early down the path to overdose & death; he can't let Effie have her own comeback record--vehemently punishing her long after he's pushed her to ruin. For all his constant aim of "a new sound"--which turns out to be disco--he fails to recognize the import of Early's inventing rap on the spot. And what was so uncommercial with "message" songs anyway? This wasn't the buttoned-down '50s, but the chaotic '70s.
The fourth (and least) new song is a number for the transparent Jackson 5 stand-ins, The Campbell Connection: "Perfect World," again, in Kreiger's perfect pastiche. Condon stages another lovely transition with Effie's "I Am Changing," from audition to performance in the pan of a camera at a rooftop nightclub. "One Night Only," like many songs is used to advance the story thru montage, which it does effectively for sure, but at the cost of lessening the musical impact. Disco seems more palatable now as a historic artifact--and in only the smallest & best of examples-- in contrast to the anathema felt by fans of Punk & New Wave at the time. But Diana Ross didn't really go toe to toe with Donna Summer. And even if Effie is clearly modeled on Florenence Ballard--the Supreme who was let go--she also draws from Aretha Franklin. Yet with so many obvious parallels to real-life black entertainers and their histories, this doesn't transcend fiction, in the way that Gypsy does for Rose Lee or Funny Girl for Fanny Brice. These Dreamgirls remain fiction. Nowhere is this more evident than in Deena's break from Curtis in pursuit of autonomy: an indie movie (pitched by John Lithgow & John Krasinski); a defiant "message" song, "Listen"--which becomes defacto Beyonce's "eleven o'clock number." Did Deena write the song, too? The lyrics are too on the nose as a rebuke to Curtis. Then it's "Hard to Say Goodbye," which is the song it should be, and the final slow coda of "Dreamgirls" during which Curtis has his parental awakening. A pretty nifty twist for what otherwise would have been just a final reprise.
I heard there were some who carped about the film, but I can hardly see how anyone could be disappointed. So rarely was a musical transitioned to screen with such fidelity, yet enhanced by the properties of cinema. Clinging to my Writers Guild card, for such rare occasions, I saw the movie first at a screening on Dec 9th at the state-of-the-art theater in George Lucas's campus at the Presidio in San Francisco. Heaven. The movie was quite well received upon its nationwide release on Dec. 15, 2006, and was expected to be a strong awards contender--the first musical since Chicago to be deemed worthy. (Entertainment Weekly ranked it 2nd on their "25 Movies you must see before Oscar" list.) So it was something of a shock when the Academy came up short on a Best Picture nomination, surely close behind the tally run up for Babel, or The Queen, if not Letters from Iwo Jima, The Departed or Little Miss Sunshine (which itself became a William Finn musical later.) But Eddie Murphy & Jennifer Hudson got well-deserved nods (with Hudson winning). Alas, writer-director Condon came up twice shy; as did the cinematography, and most criminally, the film editing (which truly makes the pic). Properly recognized were Art Direction Costume Design, and Sound Mixing--along with those 3 aforementioned songs. But the numbers were encouraging, with a domestic box office of $103 million, reversing the sinking numbers of the last three Bway movie-musicals since Chicago.
The gestation of a new musical is often long and agonizing. This certainly proved to be the case with my own, When Stars Collide, which had been dragging on for years, hobbled both by my full-time employment and partnership with the most lackadaisical of composers. But by summer 2006 we were finally ready to put together a staged reading to access what we had. Further delays pushed it back to October 23rd--an evening Greg MacKellan let us use the Eureka Theater. With his wife (Meg Mackay) as star and inspiration of the show we'd written, Billy Philadelphia found most of the chorus, while I cast major roles from the 42nd St. Moon regulars, including Maureen McVerry, Darlene Popovich, Richard Pardini, John Elliott Kirk & Michael Patrick Gaffney--all of whom delivered beautifully. Billy had rehearsed some of the music, but there was no rehearsal on script, which was a huge disappointment to me. Still, it played as well as could be expected with such limited preparation. Fortunately, as memory--and opinion--is so fluid and unreliable, the reading was recorded on video, providing a most instructive blueprint when viewed later, dispassionately. Happily, there were a good many moments (and songs) that played as well as I'd intended. But also scenes a bit askew, or song amiss--some of which were simply jarringly wrong. Still, combined with strong encouragement from our audience of 50 or so (their response is palpable on disc), I was energized to forge ahead. But now Billy, whose enthusiasm had been draining since nearly the moment he began composing (at his own invitation I need add) bowed out. Given how often I found his melodic line coming up short or his meter clashing to my lyrics, I felt a big sense of relief, tho I was now alone saddled with the full burden again. Yet, as Ed Zimkus pointed out, "If Mel Brooks can do it...." Yes, why couldn't I peck out the tunes? Isn't that what Lionel Bart, Bob Merrill, and even Irving Berlin did? Perhaps there was unearthed talent there as well.
This was also the year I had resigned to call myself, by definition, an incurable dilettante. For having pursued both vocation & pleasure in theater, movies, TV, books, music, painting, collage, architecture and stand-up comedy without any one field dominant, what else was I to call myself? As if to prove the point, after all the frustration with getting When Stars Collide onto the stage, I began writing a fictional biography of my two divas (which tho fairly extensive has yet--if ever--to be finished.) My own memoir, should it ever be written, might well be called I, Dilettante. And I am telling you . . .
Next Up: Hairspray