A ‘Dream’ voice: ‘Dreamgirls’ icon Jennifer Holliday to sing at Goodspeed gala
Goodspeed Musicals is staging “Dreamgirls” at its landmark Opera House starting in November, but first it is showcasing an original “Dreamgirl” in concert in June.
Jennifer Holliday, who became a major stage star as the first Effie on Broadway, will perform during the Goodspeed’s 60th Anniversary Gala on June 12.
Goodspeed asked Holliday to perform at the gala because of the link to “Dreamgirls” being part of the theater’s season, and she agreed.
During a phone interview last week, Holliday says she will definitely sing numbers from “Dreamgirls” and likely some jazz standards and songs with Broadway in mind as well. She’ll be accompanied by a seven-piece band.
Holliday’s career started in the stratosphere. She was 21 when “Dreamgirls” opened on Broadway in 1981.
She won a Tony for her performance and a Grammy for her version of what became her signature song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” on the soundtrack.
She won another Grammy in 1986 for Best Inspirational Performance for “Come Sunday.”
But she went through very difficult times, too. Her record company reportedly dropped her because of her weight, which was around 400 pounds. (She later slimmed down, thanks to a change in her lifestyle and gastic bypass surgery.)
She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which is now in remission. She struggled with depression and filed for bankruptcy.
But she has come out the other side, both personally and professionally. She is, as she says, a survivor.
In recent years, she has starred as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” and “Mama” Morton in “Chicago” on Broadway.
She did an acclaimed mini residency at 54 Below in New York City earlier this year.
And Holliday was a contestant on the TV show “The Masked Singer” in the spring of 2022. She was Miss Teddy. The show’s producers asked David Foster — who became friends with Holliday after producing the “Dreamgirls” soundtrack and writing a couple of her hit songs — if Holliday might want to compete on “The Masked Singer,” as Foster had done with his wife Katharine McPhee. He called Holliday to ask her, and she came onboard.
Here is more of what Holliday had to say.
On singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” now as opposed to when she was a young woman:
“When I first sang that song, I was only 19 years old. When we opened on Broadway, I just turned 21. … I definitely didn’t know anything about love and relationships because I had been working since I was 18, and I didn’t have any chance to fall in love with anybody or that sort of thing. So back then, I was drawing from a lot of other emotions to become an actress, but I hadn’t even become a young woman, because I didn’t know my own self …
“As the decades have gone by, of course, I’m a mature woman now. I’m 62 years old. I’ve been married and divorced twice. I don’t have any children, but I do know a lot about living, and the business has been quite a struggle for me for many decades. There was at least 10 years or so where really it wasn’t working, and I was still trying to find my way, and my recording career did not go as I hoped. Even though I have several Grammys and lots of awards and my fans love all of my recordings, but it had been difficult.
“Now I’m being rediscovered by these young people through social media. I’m more popular now than I’ve ever been, and that is through social media, all of the talent shows (where) people are singing my songs, different things like that. So for me, (‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’) is a song of survival now or just to show that I’m a real survivor. It’s kind of, ‘And I’m telling you I’m not going’ to the world. It’s like OK, show business is really just a difficult business because it takes more than talent to really become somebody, you know what I’m saying? It just does; it’s the truth. You can be talented, but you need so many more things going in your favor …
“So now, for me, when I sing the song, I’m so happy to sing it for people. I’m not tired of singing it because I now have a newfound sense of myself. I grew into myself as a woman. I would say I was kind of late doing that. Like I said, I’m 62 now, but I don’t think I really began to find myself until I was in my 40s. I don’t know how many women feel like that …
“Even though it’s a dramatic song about unrequited love and somewhat painful, it has a tinge of joy in it because it’s like I’m saying, ‘I’m still here, baby. I am still here, and you can love if you want to or not, but I’m gonna sing this song.’”
On the out-of-town tryout in Boston for “Dreamgirls,” where word of mouth went wild and it became apparent the show would be a big hit:
“That’s when we began to realize, ‘Oh, my God, this is something different, that people are really excited about and talking about.’ (Director/co-producer/co-choreographer) Michael Bennett began to really pour everything into the show. I mean, he made sure we had the best of everything. Some of the gowns were, like, $20,000 apiece. That was a lot of money back then, 41 years ago. He wanted us to feel that, even though we were an African-American show, he was not cutting any corners, that he would do the same as he’d do with his other shows. He really wanted us to feel that we could have something spectacular, amazing, and we were worthy of it.”
Why she decided to do “The Masked Singer,” which she said was “a wonderful experience”:
“My fans love that show, and it would be me stepping out of my comfort zone. I had already said to myself, going into my 60s, I’m going to be more adventurous … I want to try to do different things, just experience new things as an artist and as a woman, too.”
On those crazy, elaborate “Masked Singer” costumes:
“The great thing about the costumes is they’re not really hot. They are heavy, but it depends on what you can handle in terms of how much weight you can carry … For me, they built me a cooling vest so the legs for my Miss Teddy costume were heavy, but the rest of the body, they made light. …
“They also have a little mechanical thing in there, if you need a little fan … The part where you breathe, where you think you’re seeing the mouth is not where the mouth is, so the head can be a lot higher than where you are, and you actually can have a vent. … It’s quite ingenious.”
On “Masked Singer” judge Robin Thicke not guessing that Holliday was inside the Miss Teddy costume:
“I was really disappointed in Robin Thicke, because he’s (guessed) everybody was me since the show has started, and he didn’t even know it was me! I mean, he really, genuinely didn’t know it was me. I wanted to take off my head and go, ‘Robin, you’ve been calling everybody me since this doggone show started. …I finally come on here, and you don’t even know it’s me?!’”
On maintaining that famous voice:
“I think that one of the greatest things that happened to me was that I did start in theater. I went from the Baptist church choir to the theater, at age 18. At that young age, (you are) having to learn to do eight shows a week, keep your voice, which they teach you. I’ve always stayed faithful to my early teaching, even when I started doing lots of concerts and things like that. I still stayed very disciplined to how they teach you how to take care of your throat.”
Advice from stars:
“Ethel Merman told me, she said, ‘Listen, you have a big voice like mine, but everything can’t always be at the top.’ Because I was really just a high soprano when I first started. She’s like, ‘Everything can’t be up at the top.’
“I even opened for George Burns, when he was alive, at Caesar’s in Vegas, and I was still young at this time. His team wanted to fire me because George Burns’ audience was older, so they were saying I didn’t fit in with George Burns because of the fact that I had such a big voice and the audience was older — they said it was too much for them. So they fired me.
“But George Burns came to my dressing room, and he said (Holliday launches into an imitation of Burns’ famously raspy voice), ‘Hey, kid, I heard they fired you. They’re gonna let you go. But I think you should stay.’ I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘You know, don’t give (the audience) everything at one time.’ He said, ‘You’re working so hard. … Control it more. Everything doesn’t have to be blasting all the time.’ So I really started to do that.”
What: Goodspeed’s 60th Anniversary Gala
Who: Concert by Jennifer Holliday
Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: June 12; cocktail reception starts at 5:30 p.m. on the lawn, then dinner and live auction; concert by Holliday is at 8:30 p.m. inside the Goodspeed Opera House
Tickets: Start at $500 for the full gala; tickets for concert only are $100 and $200