It's No Dream, Girl

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

NEW YORK The song is only about five minutes long. But it is the purest example of a showstopper. Sung poorly, it is a rafter-shaking cliche. Sung well, it can be the vocal equivalent of the Rapture -- transcendent and soul-stirring. And it has the proven ability to bestow a lifetime of fame.

Jennifer Holliday sang "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" when the musical "Dreamgirls" opened on Broadway on Dec. 20, 1981. The show tells the professional and personal story of a 1960s girl group modeled after the Supremes. Holliday originated the role of Effie White, the emotional center of the tale, the one whose heart is broken. "And I Am Telling You" marks the show's turning point, the moment when Effie learns she has been pushed out of the group and betrayed by the man she loves.

Holliday threw herself into that song, won a Tony Award and assured her place in Broadway history. (Her performance at the 1982 Tonys can be seen in a grainy clip posted on YouTube.com and is accompanied by pages of ecstatic commentary.)

Twenty-five years later, "Dreamgirls" has become a film, which opens Christmas Day in Washington. Jennifer Hudson, a former "American Idol" contestant, plays Effie. And thanks to a five-minute song, her life is in the midst of exhilarating, unnerving change.

The film stars Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and a host of other actors with a wealth of experience. But Hudson has custody of the story's iconic moment. When she sings, she is both sassy and pain-stricken, confident and vulnerable. Audiences have erupted in applause and cheers. She's been nominated for a Golden Globe. Prognosticators see an Oscar in her future.

"Jennifer is just a jewel," says her co-star Danny Glover. "Sometimes something comes along for an individual talent like Jennifer who has an extraordinary voice."

"Even though Jennifer Holliday was great onstage," he says, "I think when people think of 'Dreamgirls,' they're going to think of Jennifer Hudson as Effie."

What is it like when fame shows up so suddenly and with such fanfare? What does it feel like to have Oprah Winfrey describe your singing prowess as akin to a religious experience? What do all the accolades sound like when two years ago you didn't have an agent or a manager -- when all you had were your prayers? This moment, she told Winfrey when the cast appeared on her show, feels "like God's favor."

"That's the best way I could try to describe it," Hudson says later. "There's a time for everything. It's my season. It's the same voice and the same girl. It's nothing but the favor of God."

Entourage

The evening after the film's New York premiere, Hudson arrives at the Regency Hotel wearing a gray knit dress with wide black leather belt and knee-high black leather boots. Her hair is styled long with cascading curls. Trailing after Hudson are a stylist who will obsessively stroke her hair in preparation for a photograph and a publicist who will hover over her like a Miss America handler. Hudson stifles yawns because she didn't get to bed until around 5 a.m. and she struggles to find the words to describe her fairy-tale night.

"The premiere was so exciting. I had no idea what to expect. Jamie tried to tell me, but you have to experience it," Hudson says. She pauses and her eyes get wider, displaying the sort of wonder that is heartening but that can be quickly crushed by Hollywood, cynicism and too many appearances in the tabloids. "If I never get married, this will have been my wedding day. That special night. That one special night."

Hudson, 25, has arrived at this point quickly. Her journey has been so fast that her career path is akin to a ride on the Autobahn. Hudson grew up in Chicago, the youngest of three siblings. She worked as a singer on a Disney cruise ship where her co-stars kept up a running dialogue about Broadway musicals and told Hudson that she was destined for the Great White Way. In 2004, she was a contestant on "American Idol" and was told by judge Simon Cowell, on national television: "I think you're out of your depth in this competition." Her jaw dropped in astonishment. (Cowell later ate crow on "Oprah.") The public voted Hudson off. Her friend Fantasia Barrino won.


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