THE FOOTLIGHTS, LOOKING IN
The kids in the front rows of the Broadway theater have gimme in their voices. Want it, want it, want it so bad. All the great-looking actors and actresses of "Dreamgirls" have come to speak to them after the final curtain, but you can see that the actress they really want to speak to is that other girl, that heavy, kind of shy girl: Jennifer Holliday, the star of the show.
She's got it; she's hot. Maybe from backstage she's a fat girl in jeans and an old school sweatshirt; but from out front, these tanned, slim drama students from L.A. are seeing something else. The 21-year-old girl who's being compared to Streisand. The girl whose first-act solo makes them scream and roar. The just-hatched Overnight Sensation of the Numero Uno Hot Ticket in New York. She's got it and they want it, and even though the questions are polite, you can hear the envy in their voice. Incredulous, irritated -- "You said you had no training at all?" Mildly hostile; "Were you at least born in New York?"
She, for a big girl, answers in a tiny little girl voice. You would not be the first to compare it to Monroe's. "No, I have no training at all, none at all." "No, I never wanted to be in the business."
What a sweet voice; hearing it, after a matinee, you'd never think that this little Texas girl told one of the most powerful directors in New York to take a walk. Hearing that roar after the first act, though you might guess about the full-length mink, you'd probably never guess how she spent Christmas Eve.
What you see, looking at success, depends on where you're standing.
THE CRITICS' VIEW
The New York Times, Dec. 21, 198l: "Miss Holliday's Act I solo is one of the most powerful theatrical coups to be found in a Broadway musical since Ethel Merman sang 'Everything's Coming Up Roses' at the end of Act I in Gypsy."
Newsweek: "Maria Callas herself would have admired this devastating fusion of acting and singing."
THE VIEW FROM THE DRESSING ROOM
How is it being a star, a superstar, reporters sing in "Dreamgirls." "It's wonderful," the girls sing back. Now, in Holliday's dressing room, after a Wednesday matinee, the reporter and star are doing the duet. How is it, this attention, the reporter opens. "Oooh," says the girl, looking blackberry-luscious in her stage lashes and red lipstick. "It's good, it's good." One hears she's being interviewed continuously; Peopled, Meryl-Streepled, and what about Avedon and Vogue?
She grins, tugging on the bottom of her sweatshirt; a very open, excited, 21-year-old; wiggly-squiggly as a cocker spaniel puppy.
"Aaavedon," she says, stretching the name out, a fond memory, as she tugs on her shirt. "Miiister Avedon. Michael Bennett, the director and I took pictures and Michael bought me 4 dozen pink roses and a bottle of very expensive champagne." She stumbles over the name, success so new that though they're sending her champagne, she can't pronounce the name., ". . . Don, Dom, Perin, Perignon, and these were just props, right? and he brought them in and put them in my arms and poured a bottle of champagne over my head. It was so funny . . . we had a good time . . ."
Before the show opened in New York, everybody wanted to talk to Bennett, creator of "Chorus Line"; the day the reviews came out, according to the publicist, everybody wanted to talk to Holliday and not Bennett and not anyone else in the show. The reviews of the show itself were mixed. Lots of flash and little content, many said of the story of a soul group -- much like the Supremes -- and its rise to the top. But Holliday, in her role as Effie -- overweight, difficult, ultimately replaced by a svelte singer with a more commercially acceptable voice -- was singled out. Her big number, a tearing, bluesy song of rejection and anger -- "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" -- made the show. No matter that she had been on Broadway the year before; the definition of overnight sensation has simply to do with fame.
THE VIEW MOVING UP
Jennifer Holliday did not come up through the ranks as another pretty-pretty Broadway baby. "Plump," the press has been describing her. In fact, she is fat, rolls of flesh under her red Cullen Junior High School sweatshirt; a hefty behind in her baggy Sasson jeans. She's always had a problem with weight. Two years ago, in "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God," she weighed close to 300 pounds. Her favorite breakfast then, she told a Washington reporter, was grits, fried chicken and Coke. Coke was her favorite drink in the world. She named her dog, a Pekingese, for it. The dog is always with her, in the dressing room during the show, traveling back with her to her hotel room.
"I bought him 2 1/2 years ago when I was on the road with "Arms Too Short to Box With God," she says. "I bought him 'cause I needed a little company. It was all brand new to me and I was all alone."
She says this simply, forthrightly, not dwelling, not avoiding. It got lonely on the road, that's a fact, she can move along. The opening duet between reporter and subject is picaresque, anyway, the long view. She runs through hers: born in Houston, mother a second-grade teacher; father? She doesn't talk about her father, she says flatly, he walked out on the family when she was 1. Never wanted to go into show business, wanted to be a lawyer like Barbara Jordan. Sang in the church choir. Didn't know she could really sing until she was 12 and "the voice" -- which she considers "a gift" -- began to change and she began to play with it, studying Patti LaBelle and D.J. Rogers and Aretha and Gladys Knight; you know, when Gladys screamed, she'd scream; when Gladys shouted, she'd shout.
If you have not heard her in "Dreamgirls," it is difficult to grasp how rare the voice she was playing with: Picture a 12-year-old girl, playing with a marvelous toy alone in her room in Houston, and the more she plays with it, the more marvelous it becomes and you have an idea. Even so, not everyone was interested. She never sang in her high school choir, because she did not care for the pop songs they favored and because her teacher did not care for the life she brought to the songs.
"She was into telling you, 'If you're gonna sing a note go like this'; she said, 'You can't put in those little dips and curlicues'; I said 'Oh, please, oh God, I have to get out of here' and never went back."
She sang around and got spotted by a dancer in the road show of "Chorus Line." He paid for her ticket to come to New York. She auditioned for Vinnette Carroll for "Arms Too Short" and got the job the same day. "I bet she's got this little bitty voice," she heard Carroll say, because of her little speaking voice, then she sang a hymn and she heard Carroll catch her breath. "OOOOh," Carroll said.
THE VIEW OF THE OVERNIGHT SENSATION AS ONE TOUGH PIECE OF WORK
Back when the show was trying out in Boston, before Holliday got the notices, the girls in the cast always knew when there was going to be trouble.
"Uh, uh, think Miss Jennifer's gonna pull a great diva ration today," they'd say.
They'd say this, according to Cheryl Alexander, an actress in the show, with respect: Holliday was not going to be used. She was tough. She knew what she wanted and when she didn't get it, she walked. She walked out on director Michael Bennett, when -- after having done one workshop with the show -- she returned to find that her part had been cut. That a 21-year-old unknown would walk out on the director who had created "Chorus Line" was astonishing. Holliday, discussing it, says that she had a recording contract; Broadway just didn't mean that much.
"Being raised the way I was, I've always been very mature, I've always chosen the things I wanted to do," she says. ". . . and I was not impressed by Mr. Bennett because of his writing 'Chorus Line' and all that sort of stuff, because I knew nothing about that, I was not into that scene . . . I felt that my talent was equal as anybody else's . . ."
For a while, it was ugly. There was name-calling, there was fighting for two weeks, there was, to Holliday, a feeling she'd been betrayed.
"I became very hurt," says Holliday. "I don't know if you've ever been hurt so you feel like your heart drops to your stomach. I didn't speak to him and I cried a lot at home. I never let him see me cry."
She didn't talk to any friends about it. Her management said to do whatever she felt she should do. She didn't call up her mother in Texas. "I talked to her after I left the show."
THE SOCIAL LIFE OF THE OVERNIGHT SENSATION AS SEEN BY TWO ACTRESSES AND A FIRSTHAND SOURCE
"She doesn't hang out, she stays to herself and goes home." --DRESSING ROOMMATE AND CLOSE FRIEND DEBORAH BURRELL
"I don't know that I've ever seen her with anyone, she's very lonely, she's a loner . . . she goes home alone, she and her dog." --CHERYL ALEXANDER
"I've never had a steady boyfriend, in this business you don't have time for anything." --JENNIFER HOLLIDAY
THE VIEW BY THE PLAYWRIGHT OF WHY THE STAR IS A STAR INCLUDING THE EFFICACY OF PAIN
"I tried other women in the role when I was directing the show myself, and it didn't work, they didn't have that essence of pain . . . Jennifer is very raw, she screams through the pain of everybody . . . the first time Jennifer sang that song for me, I walked out, it was too much, I couldn't take it . . . it must come from her soul, no one can teach you that . . . Barbra Streisand had it, I went to see her when she was 19, singing 'Summertime,' she sang it better than anyone; she had that nose, but she ----ed them all and did it . . . What's Jennifer's nose? . . . I don't know, maybe her fat . . ." -- TOM EYEN
NOTE TO A STAR FROM A STAR
"Dear Jennifer. You're wonderful! Don't ever lose weight! Good luck and good health. Barbra Streisand."
THE VIEW OF THE STAR IN A RESIDENTIAL HOTEL, THE AFTERNOON BEFORE NEW YEAR'S
The television is on. Nobody is watching it, and it's out of focus and rolling, and there's a visitor, but it's on and so is the tape deck. "I like everything working at once," Holliday says; people who have spent a lot of time on the road will understand why. It's 4 in the afternoon, she's fixing tea, for the voice, for the New Year's Eve show. She's wearing jeans and a baggy Houston T-shirt with an oil rig but there are beautiful things around the room. A gold shell Neiman-Marcus bag. A full-length black mink. She went to 21 with "a very special date" last night, she says, no, she won't say who. (The someone special will turn out to be her director, Michael Bennett.) She'll show you the shoes she wore, though; black and gold Vittorio Ricci. She loves shoes, she says, has 250 pair. Women who have spent a lot of time fighting their weight will understand why. No matter how heavy you get, your feet can still look good. That's important to Holliday. Her five-year plan, the dream of the Dreamgirl, is "to be a successful recording artist, with people like Stephanie Mills," but her 10-year plan is to be like Diana Ross. Because she's "first class." Because she likes her "style."
She's looking backward now though. Looking for the word to describe her childhood. "Grow-up-fast," she says immediately, no hesitation, then, apologetically, "That's more than one word."
Had to do with her father -- he was a minister -- walking out on her mother, with her mother "being alone," and even though she had a teaching job, having to take on other jobs, sewing, a paper route, working in an old-age home, to care for the family.
"I had to take on the responsibility of the oldest . . . I used to see her working all the time, and being out on her paper route and I grew up very fast . . . I was very mature . . . I had to be . . . but I missed a childhood, really being a child, and then I got snatched into the business, I missed things like dating, school, college . . ."
She had her 19th, 20th and 21st birthdays on the road; the 20th was "very intimate," just a few friends, including "management"; the 21st was "perfect." Mostly though, she doesn't hang out, doesn't party. Comes home too keyed up from the show to sleep and watches television, loves old movies; Doris Day, June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds; if she could choose, she'd be Doris Day in "Young at Heart," "so Frank Sinatra could sing those songs to me." Tonight, New Year's Eve, she's looking forward to "Oklahoma." She spent Christmas watching TV, too. Could have spent the evening with some people from the cast, but, she says, that's not the same as being with your family. She chooses to save Christmas for special people, she says, and the special people weren't there. Later, Michael Bennett will say that they were going to go out New Year's Eve, but he came down with a "105-degree fever" and couldn't go.
THE FOOTLIGHTS, LOOKING OUT
Holliday on the glamor of it all: "It's fun -- there are good times -- it's not as bad as I thought it could be going into it."
Holliday on the peak: "When Michael first gave me my solo bow. I have the last bow; I take the stage alone and I have the bow alone and to hear the people cheering and roaring . . . I felt like Leontyne Price, that's the only person who got that kind of thing I know . . . I felt . . . like I'd done something, been accepted . . ."
POSTSCRIPT, BY THE DIRECTOR
"You worried about her? Don't be."