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An Interview with Jennifer Holliday

Jennifer Holliday
Some 27 years have passed since the original production of Dreamgirls skyrocketed a young gospel singer named Jennifer Holliday to fame in the role of Effie White. Now, this tireless veteran of stage, recordings, television and concert performances is headed from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to Seattle for a two-night guest start stint with the Seattle Men's chorus. It was a pleasure to speak with Jennifer recently by phone about her career and the lingering effect of Dreamgirls in her professional life.

DH:  Jennifer, It's a pleasure to chat with you. I've been a fan since I saw you in the second to last Broadway preview of Dreamgirls back in 1981. The show is still vivid in my memory, as is your star-making performance as Effie.

JH:  Oh, thank you so much! I appreciate that.

DH:  You have performed in Seattle before, correct?

JH:  Yes, but this will be my first time with the Seattle Men's Chorus.

DH:  Any idea what you'll be singing with them?

JH:  Not yet. They have two more rehearsals, and I'll know more in the next day or two. As the guest star, I will be doing some of my stuff from Dreamgirls, as well as other things.

DH:  You know the audience wouldn't let you get away without a few of the Effie songs.

JH:  I know, I know. And they won't have to stomp their feet, or any stuff like that. I'm going to be singing what they want. I'm not gonna tease them.

DH:  What is it like having a signature song like "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"? Judy Garland had "Over the Rainbow," Barbra Streisand has "People." Do you ever wish you weren't always asked to sing that song over and over again, in concerts and personal appearances?

JH:  I have never wished that. My story is different than Judy Garland's or Barbra Streisand's—I don't know how many times I would have had an opportunity to have a signature song, so I would never wish that people would stop requesting I sing it.

DH:  But the song wasn't in the show initially, right? It was developed in the workshops?

JH:  That's correct. And in the beginning, when it was written, it didn't end the first act. There were many changes in the workshops.

DH:  It's a mega-number that comes out of an intensely emotional scene in the finished show. What was your reaction to being handed such a challenging number?

JH:  I was only 19, so I didn't know how to react. I was just trying to do the work. In the creative process. I wasn't trying to be a star at 19. I don't think you really know that something is going to become as huge as it did. Even with Michael Bennett and those guys, I don't think they could have told you outright that, years later ... it would have become what it is.

DH:  How did you pace yourself in performing the number, at the climax of act one, recover during intermission and then go on with more emotional material in act two? To draw a parallel, "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy comes at the end of that show, but you had to do your aria if you will, halfway through.

JH:  I think actually it was easier. I think having to pull all that off at the end of the show is too long a night. To find that strength. So I think it was easier the way it was.

DH:  You were handpicked by Michael Bennett for Effie. Was it exciting working with him?

JH:  Again, I was na├»ve. I wasn't planning to be in show business, growing up in Texas. I went straight from singing in the church to the New York theatre, so I didn't know who Michael Bennett was, nor did I care. I think that worked out better for us. We started working on something and it came together, over a couple of years. We all were in the creative process, the birthing process. And I was all ready on Broadway in Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, so I was doing a lot of work. In the daytime I was fooling with him and at night I was trying to please an audience eight times a week. And to do all of that at 19 is a lot!

DH:  How long did you do Dreamgirls on Broadway?

JH:  Almost two years, and then we went to Los Angeles to do it. So, from the time that I started the workshops to the end of performing in it, I would say that was about 5 years collectively.

DH:  What was it like going to Atlanta last year to revisit the role and the show?

JH:  Quite different. Number one, because the movie had come out, a lot had gone on, and of course I am not a spring chicken. Also, I am substantially smaller than I was back then. It didn't change the character, but it did make a change in terms of what I was going to try to do. Wear a fat suit? I opted not to, just to see if I had enough acting chops to pull it off, to show the emotions of the woman in love, and her heartache. Heartache is heartache, and shouldn't be predicated on whether she's a big woman. So that was a real change. And the other thing was pretty much that the principal cast was new, and I hadn't worked with them before, and the rest of the cast I was at least 20 years older than, so it was kind of like, o.k., let me see if I can keep up. From what I hear, everyone thinks I did pretty well.

DH:  You now live in Atlanta; was doing the show there a catalyst for your move?

JH:  No, I had fallen in love with Atlanta and had been here many times. That is why I chose to do Dreamgirls here, and only here.

DH:  Assuming you did see the film of Dreamgirls, what was your reaction to it?

JH:  People have always done film versions. I did see the movie. They took a lot of liberties, which made it almost a whole different thing, you know?

DH:  You have played several great ladies of music in other stage shows. Do you have a favorite role amongst those?

JH:  I did Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith and would love to do Dinah Washington, and they are all so different that I can't say one would be a favorite, because of where you have to reach from an acting standpoint. A lot of people who got the chance to see the Mahalia really liked that project (Sing Mahalia Sing), so maybe someone would be interested in developing that project more.

DH:  You had a good run on TV in a role on "Ally McBeal." Would you like to do more in that medium?

JH:  I think I liked television, not more than singing though. If I wouldn't have to give up one for the other. That was the great thing about "Ally McBeal," because I got the chance to be on a show, act, have exposure to an incredible large audience and still sing.

TB:  What's left in the arts that you, the little girl with the big voice from Texas, would still like to do? A straight play or film role maybe?

JH:   Unless it was something brief, I wouldn't want to be away from the music too long. This is what I was born to do, this is what I actually love to do, and I actually feel that I give my most when singing, whether it is brightening someone's day or comforting someone through a song of inspiration, or just giving them some good music, that is what I want to do. Other things like a part in a movie for a brief time. If I was in a hit play or TV show without music, I wouldn't really want to do that. But if it was brief, yes I would like to do straight acting.

DH:  Are you connected strongly with your family in Texas?

JH:  I don't have a big family. Both my parents are deceased, but I do have a brother and sister in Texas, and they have children. I have no children. I do occasionally get to see them in Texas, but not a lot.

DH:  They can always come visit their Auntie Jennifer.

JH:  That's true, and most of them are just beginning to become teenagers and developing their own personalities, so I think they just come out and see me perform, on the road.

DH:  I think the most different role on your resume is Matron Mama Morton in Chicago. Was that a fun experience?

JH:  I had a good time. And then they took my take on Mama and put it on Queen Latifah and had her do the movie. There had not been a black Mama Morton before me. My Mama Morton was more like a Marlene Dietrich though, and they wanted Mama Morton to be dumpy.

DH:  Since you'll be here for the SMC Christmas concert, it seems fair to conclude by asking what your favorite Christmas song is?

JH:  "Oh, Holy Night" is my favorite, but I won't be singing that. I don't have a lot of Christmas stuff in my repertoire yet, but hopefully in the next year I'll do that.

DH:  I think a Jennifer Holliday Christmas album would be a big seller.

JH:  Oh, I hope so. I've never done one before.

DH:  See you at the Men's Chorus concert and thanks for talking with Talkin' Broadway.

JH:  Thank you!

Fruitcake the Seattle Men's Chorus' holiday concert features Jennifer Holliday as Guest Star at two performances only, Sunday December 7 and Monday December 8 - 8 pm in Benaroya Hall, 200 University Street at 3rd Avenue, downtown Seattle. Other performances (minus Holliday) are at Benaroya Hall, Sunday, December 14 - 8 pm; Monday, December 15 - 8 pm; Sunday, December 21 - 8 pm; Monday, December 22 - 2 pm; Monday, December 22 - 8 pm. Outside of Seattle Fruitcake will be performed December 6 at Everett Civic Auditorium - 8:00 PM at 2415 Colby in Everett, WA, and December 13 at the Temple Theater - 2:00 PM at 47 Saint Helens Ave. in Tacoma, WA. For more information go to

- David Edward Hughes

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