For 'Dreamgirls' Composer Krieger, a Triple Thrill

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Composer Henry Krieger has lived with "Dreamgirls" for nearly 30 years. He was there in 1979 when the Motown-based musical was being conceived, and there at the workshop piano on the day lyricist and book writer Tom Eyen needed help with the heart-wrenching song that would become "Dreamgirls' " signature, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Of course he was there, too, for the Dec. 20, 1981, opening on Broadway that had the theater community all atwitter.

Then came more than 1,500 shows in New York, a cross-country touring production and, eventually, after many stops and starts, a movie adaptation, to which Krieger contributed four new songs.

Then, yesterday, there was an early-morning phone call from the film's writer and director, Bill Condon, who wanted to talk Oscar. There was plenty to discuss: Among the leading eight Academy Award nominations for "Dreamgirls" were three for Best Original Song.

In making his Hollywood debut, Krieger had pulled off the rarest of hat tricks for movie composers.

"It's a dream come true," he said yesterday afternoon. He quickly apologized for "being hackneyed." He laughed. He was giddy. You almost expected him to break into song! Instead, he said: "How lucky am I?"

Landing a triple nomination in the Best Original Song category has happened just twice before. In 1992, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman received three nominations for their work on "Beauty and the Beast." Three years later, Elton John and Tim Rice repeated the feat, with nominations for three songs from another animated musical, "The Lion King."

Alan Menken, Elton John . . . Henry Krieger? You could almost hear Krieger shaking his head from New York.

"I'm happily bemused and surprised and grateful," he said softly. He was also cagey: Krieger would not divulge his age, only that he has "reached his 60th year."

Krieger shared the nominations with various collaborators: Siedah Garrett on "Love You I Do" (performed in the movie by Jennifer Hudson), Willie Reale on "Patience" (Eddie Murphy) and Scott Cutler and Anne Preven on "Listen" (Beyonce Knowles).

Krieger and company will compete with Randy Newman ("Our Town," from "Cars") and Melissa Etheridge ("I Need to Wake Up," from "An Inconvenient Truth") when the Academy Awards are announced on Feb. 25.

If history is any indication, it could be a big night for Krieger: Both previous sets of triple nominees wound up winning -- Menken and Ashman for the song "Beauty and the Beast," John and Rice for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight."

Two different phones rang. Krieger excused himself to answer one of them. He returned to the line and apologized.

"It's nice to be wanted, but it's hard to keep up," he said.

Wasn't always that way. After "Dreamgirls" stormed Broadway, Krieger worked on another musical, "The Tap Dance Kid," with lyricist Robert Lorick. It opened on Broadway in 1983, at which point Krieger began a slow slide into obscurity. It would be 14 years before he returned with a major theater score, "Side Show," with Bill Russell.

Krieger is currently working on a Broadway-bound musical based on "The Flamingo Kid." But "Dreamgirls" is his baby, the gift that keeps on giving. The movie adaptation has earned more than $75 million in box-office receipts. Two versions of the soundtrack have combined sales exceeding 600,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and "Dreamgirls" is No. 1 on the current Billboard chart.

"It's just mind-boggling," the composer said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company