It's No Dream, Girl
Jennifer Hudson Nibbled Fame on 'American Idol.' A New Film Role Promises a Meatier Slice to Savor.

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 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."


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.

"I had no agent, no manager after 'American Idol.' I did the 'American Idol' tour and the one thing I did have were my fans, so I was performing for different events. The gay community supported me very well," she says. "They were great."

She worked on her music, and kept busy performing in small venues. And then one day a casting agent in Los Angeles called and asked her to audition for "Dreamgirls."

She had never seen the show and barely knew the music. But she did know about the famous song, the one Holliday sang. In all honesty, Hudson says, she actually thought the name of the character in the show was "Jennifer Holliday."

"It's definitely a major song," she says. "I knew it was definitely something special and Jennifer Holliday took it to a whole other world."

It took six months of auditions to win those five big minutes.

Director Bill Condon tested 782 other women for the role. "It took so long because we were making sure we had looked under every rock and stone," Condon says. "We knew it was going to be a newcomer because she starts out the story as a teenager. It was sort of the part to get right."

Each actress had to perform the same bit -- the "what about me" scene -- but only when the group was narrowed to a handful did each sing "And I Am Telling You," live with piano accompaniment. The choice, Condon says, was obvious. "Jennifer, not having done this before, was kind of fearless."

"It is one of the great roles in musical theater," says Condon, an Oscar nominee for his screenplay of "Chicago." "If you can live up to it and inhabit it, it becomes such an overtly emotional role."

The song can easily become a caricature. Watch a few episodes of "Showtime at the Apollo." Invariably an amateur balladeer will sing it. The most notable aspect of the performance is likely to be its volume. The singer will move quickly through the various stages of emotional overkill: self-conscious vocal quiver, animalistic growl, doubled-over agony, reared-back indignation and finally, raise-the-roof, Lord-have-mercy shouting.

It's easy to get carried away with lyrics like this:

Tear down the mountains,

Yell, scream and shout.

You can say what you want,

I'm not walkin' out.

Stop all the rivers,

Push, strike and kill.

I'm not gonna leave you,

There's no way I will.

Every verse is a big finish. Every line is an anthem of stricken self-flagellation. It takes vocal prowess to perform the song. But it also requires emotional depth and restraint.

"It's a story. It's Effie's story. She's having a normal reaction in the song," Hudson says. "Who would not act a fool" under the same circumstances?

"She's shouting out, but she's singing. And singing it well."

"I think the most difficult part was recording the song and not acting the scene," Hudson says. (Almost all of the music in the movie was recorded off-camera.) "There's no one else there. . . . You can't cry the song out. While I'm singing it, I'm not crying. But I have to deliver that same feeling."

To find the emotion necessary to sing the song well, but not let it send her into gasping hysteria, Hudson spent two months with an acting coach.

"It was like we were just sitting here having a conversation, but all along he was getting to know me and be able to trigger things out of me," Hudson says. "By the end he could whisper one thing in my ear and have me react. It was like he was getting to know me well enough to push my buttons."

For the role, Hudson used personal moments of rejection and disappointment. Her experience on "American Idol" informed the role, in part because it was so fresh in her mind. She kept a makeshift diary of Effie's relationships and aspirations. She took Effie home with her, eating the high-calorie food that Effie ate, listening to the 1960s music that Effie might have heard.

"I felt like I was Effie. Jennifer was nowhere in sight. Everything had to change," she says. "When I turned on the TV to the video channel, I wanted to hear the Supremes."

But ultimately her iPod was the most important source of inspiration.

She would play the hymn "How Great Thou Art."

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made

The words reminded her of her maternal grandmother, Julia Kate Hudson, who died in 1998. "They say I got my voice from my grandmother. She just wanted to sing for the Lord in church," Hudson says. "That's part of where I got my emotion from. I would hear her voice singing 'How Great Thou Art.' "

Hudson's voice in "Dreamgirls" sounds different than it did on "American Idol." It seems more confident, with more power and depth. She didn't have any vocal coaching, she says. The difference is time and patience. "On 'American Idol,' you have two minutes to learn the song and two minutes to sing the song. It's the same voice. Ain't nothing changed," she says. "I wasn't rushed. . . . On 'American Idol' we all knew what we could do behind the scenes, but you're trying to get everything in one song, so you look crazy."

Hudson, who was raised a Baptist, learned to sing in church. The lessons learned there, she says, are not so much about technique as about purpose.

"It's the spiritual connection with God. The song has a meaning. You're not just singing to be singing. . . . It's so magical," she says.

"That's what the church did. It trained my spirit to sing from the heart."

'Very, Very Crazy'

About five weeks after the movie was finished, the cast assembled at the Cannes Film Festival. The film studio presented a 20-minute trailer of "Dreamgirls." That's when the drumbeat of fame began.

"I warned her it would be an interesting experience," Condon says. "It's just very, very crazy."

Conventional wisdom says fame is a burden. It takes your privacy, opens you up to daunting scrutiny, sparks ugly jealousies. It can be especially tough to handle when it arrives so abruptly.

"I give credit to 'Idol.' It's like a celebrity prep camp," Hudson says. "You learn, 'Oh, Lord, I can't say this. . . . I can't just say anything.' "

It can be a fine line between being cocky and being confident, Hudson says, but you have to "trust your gift."

Glover echoes that philosophy in this, the veteran's word of advice to the novice:

"Take care of your craft," Glover says. "You only realize what you can do over the course of time. You need a wealth of experience. I don't want ["Dreamgirls"] to be the one defining role."

"Be true to who you are. If you feel like you have to be someone else other than who you are, you're in trouble," Glover says. "She's got to keep a level head when people are telling you you're better than sliced bread."

That is the price for the applause, the cheering, "God's favor."

Hudson's role in "Dreamgirls" could be her best and her only. Or it could be the beginning.

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