‘Dream’ come true: Director talks about getting to stage ‘Dreamgirls’ at Goodspeed
Director Lili-Anne Brown says that the musical “Dreamgirls” has been on her bucket list “for ever and ever.”
And now she can check that off her list. She is helming the show at Goodspeed Musicals, with performances starting Friday.
“Dreamgirls” became a huge, Tony-winning success when it opened on Broadway in 1981 and later hit as a 2006 movie starring Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson. Its tale of The Dreams, a Black female singing trio, was inspired by 1960s girl groups, particularly the Supremes. “Dreamgirls” follows their rise to fame and the conflicts and romantic drama along the way.
The Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam is a relatively small venue, and Brown said, “It’s really cool to do an intimate ‘Dreamgirls.’ It’s written to be this big extravaganza. What happens if we sort of take away a lot of the extravaganza and just tell the story? And it’s a great story. It’s a little soapy and a little campy in all the great ways. It’s so entertaining, and then you end up crying. It really will punch you in the heart because it’s a beautiful story, and how it wraps up in the end is very beautiful. There are so many super moving moments and then so many electrifying moments, just entertainment-wise.”
Brown said the themes of “Dreamgirls” reflect what most theater is at its essence: It’s about love, and it’s about aspirations and people reaching their goals. “Dreamgirls” is the story of the American dream.
It also explores the notion of entertainment.
“I think it’s timeless because even now we’re talking all the time about entertainment, and is it real, or is it fake? Is it something contrived or is it something from the heart? Is it something manufactured? You know, what is art? I feel like that’s the conversation — it’s art versus business or commerce, the American dream and who can have it and how do they get it?” Brown said.
“Dreamgirls” doesn’t just deal with romantic love, but sisterly love, too. Do the women in The Dreams stay together or turn on each other? Do they allow men to tear them apart?
Brown has high praise for the songs in this pop opera, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Tom Eyen. The score is led by the iconic “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
“The music is the main reason you want to do ‘Dreamgirls.’ The music is out of this world. It’s so, so entertaining, it’s so soulful. And these singers are just to die for,” Brown said.
Speaking of the singers: The Goodspeed production has a 20-person cast, which is fewer actors than “Dreamgirls” is usually done with. (The original Broadway production has 32.)
“I’m going to call them the hardest-working cast in show biz right now simply because they’re either onstage or quick changing at all times. There is no rest,” Brown said.
It changed her life
And Brown might be the hardest-working director in show biz. Even before Goodspeed, she had been very busy. Right ahead of “Dreamgirls,” she directed three other shows in a row, with only a week turn-around in between each. The productions were “FELA!” at Olney Theater Center in Olney, Md., “Rent” at The MUNY in St. Louis, Mo., and “The Nacirema Society” at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Brown, whose grew up in Chicago, traces her interest in theater back to her days attending the National High School Institute at Northwestern University. The program aims to give outstanding students (called “Cherubs”) immersive educational experiences.
First, Brown thought she’d be an engineering Cherub, but “then I changed my mind because it looked like too much homework,” she said with a laugh. Next idea: being a journalism cherub, but “it sounded like they had a lot of deadlines so I changed my mind again.” She ended up a theater Cherub because, as she recalled saying at the time, “It looked like they don’t do any work.”
“And it changed my whole life,” she said.
Brown became an actress and eventually segued into directing. Asked what appealed to her about directing, she said, “I’ve just always been very bossy and opinionated. (She laughed.) I think my ideas are great and I’m the smartest person in the room.”
She referenced scenes in old movies where someone asks for a volunteer, and everybody steps backward except one person. In the real world, that one person always seemed to be Brown. So she feels as though directing chose her.
Widening the casting net
When Brown got the chance to direct “Dreamgirls,” she wanted to bring in talent from more than one place — which is something she wants to do with all of her shows.
“I find that all regional theater, whether you’re in California or Cleveland or Minneapolis or Texas or Connecticut, they all cast from once place, which is New York. Which doesn’t make sense. … So I really endeavor to bring people from many different areas. I like to widen the casting net. I just think that’s the right thing to do,” Brown said.
She said there’s not a shortage of extremely talented people. Instead, it’s more a case of choosing which person you want.
“When I’m doing a gig like this — especially because we’re in a fairly remote area, and these people have to live and work together for, like, three months — I’m really focused on the people … how they are,” she said. “Because singing is singing — there are a lot of people who can sing — but if we’re going to tell a story together and we want to care and we want other people to care, there’s spiritually something that I’m looking for. So casting for me is kind of spiritual. It goes beyond, can you hit this note, can you dance? I’m really looking for actors.”
Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam
When: Friday-Dec. 30, showtimes 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also 2 p.m. select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. select Sundays; check website for Thanksgiving and Christmas week schedules
Tickets: Start at $30
Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org
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