Jennifer Holliday: Happy at last

For Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie White in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, life has had its share of nightmare moments.

Only 19 when the tumultuous Dreamgirls development process began, and 21 when the show opened in 1981, Holliday became an instant Broadway legend as soon as audiences heard her sing the show’s standout anthem, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Holliday stayed with the show for three years, and though she won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical, she was unhappy and isolated — a long way away from her Houston, Texas, roots.

And her weight was an issue. Holliday has estimated that at her heaviest, she was 330 pounds or more.

After a string of failures — her recording career never took off, a Broadway-bound show about Mahalia Jackson self-destructed, her nine-month marriage ended in divorce — Holliday attempted suicide on her 30th birthday.

“I caught a lot of bad breaks,” Holliday says in a phone interview. “Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was other people’s stuff. And there’s my accountability for my own faults and mistakes. I’m making no excuses for anything.”

Diagnosed with clinical depression, Holliday began to turn her life around. She lost nearly 150 pounds (through diet and, later, gastric bypass surgery) and bounced back.

The bounce didn’t take her to Dreamgirls heights, but she has managed to eke out a career.

“My primary living has been through corporate dates — private concerts — and events for the gay community,” says Holliday, 47. “A lot of people think I disappeared, but I’ve been working.”

When the movie version of Dreamgirls finally came out last year — 25 years after Holliday’s splash on Broadway — she was back in the news expressing unhappiness about having been shut out of the movie (only Loretta Devine, another of the original Dreamgirls, made a cameo in the film).

“My anger was directed against Paramount and (director) Bill Condon, the people who tried to say: `She’s too old, let’s forget about her and everything she did and built and struggled for and fought for.’ ”

But Holliday has let her anger subside. One thing that helped was singing “And I Am Telling You…” on a BET awards show earlier this year with Jennifer Hudson — “the other Jennifer” — who won an Oscar for playing Effie, the part Holliday helped create.

The two divas stood side by side and belted out the song as if their lives depended on it.

“That was a victorious thing for me,” Holliday says. “More like an Ali-Frazier fight. I was like, `OK, we’re gonna part as friends, but one will leave with the other’s ass kicked.’ For me, this was a victory bout — one for the veterans, the people my age and older who don’t want to be forgotten. We can still do what we do and not be put out to pasture.”

All the attention from the Dreamgirls movie has given Holliday’s career a bump. She’s performing more concerts now, and Saturday (Nov. 24) she’s at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

Of course she’ll sing her Dreamgirls songs, as well as some of the R&B selections from her various albums and some jazz standards, including a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

“Whatever I’ve gone through, for whatever reason, I sing better now because of it,” Holliday says. “I would have liked to have not gone through a lot of those things, but I have to admit, my music and songs have more meaning for me now. I think I sing from a different place.”

A resident of Harlem, Holliday does not have a manager or a publicist. She doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. She does have a MySpace page (, and she checks it during weekly visits to Kinko’s.

“I’m rebuilding my career,” she says. “I’m finally learning how to make my life work as a human being, even with my depression, even with my career not being where I’d like it to be. Through MySpace and YouTube, I have made new fans, young fans. I have a new lease on life, if not success. The true success story is that I’m alive. That’s the greatest thing I can tell you at this point.”

This Dreamgirl, Holliday says, is happy at last.

“What the future holds, I can’t tell you,” she says. “But I do know at this moment, I’m the happiest I’ve been for so many years.”

Jennifer Holliday performs in concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $37.50 to $77.50. Call 415-392-4400 or visit for information.

Let the sun shine

With all this talk about the Summer of Love – it was 40 years ago, in case you hadn’t noticed – I’ve been thinking about the musical Hair, which, not so coincidentally, is also celebrating its 40th birthday this year (as am I, but why dwell on such a depressing statistic).

“The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” as it was known, is a distinct product of its time. The score by James Rado (book/lyrics), Gerome Ragni (book/lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (music) feels more authentically show tune than it does rock, which is probably why I enjoy it so much, but it sure doesn’t sound like other shows of its era: Kander and Ebb’s The Happy Time, Bacharach and David’s Promises, Promises (which includes my favorite overture of all time) and Sherman Edwards’ 1776.

There’s something a little quaint about Hair now, especially its Act 1 finale, which takes place in dim light as most of the cast disrobes. Naked hippies, it turns out, are cute. Not rebellious, not edgy, not counter-culture. Cute.

Bay Area audiences can see a cleaned-up, no-nudity Hair (pictured below) on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County as the Mountain Play, the official harbinger of the summer theater season in these parts, “mounts” the musical. For information, visit

If you’re in New York in late summer, the Public Theater, the original producer of the musical in its 1967 off-Broadway run, is putting on a concert version in Central Park in mid- to late September. Visit for information.

And if you want to reacquaint yourself with the score, I highly recommend the Actors Fund of America benefit recording featuring an all-star cast including Charles Busch, Raul Esparza, Lea DeLaria, Harvey Fierstein, Lillias White, Billy Porter, Sheri Rene Scott, Adam Pascal, Ledisi, Ana Gasteyer and Jennifer Hudson. The album is available on iTunes or at Sh-k-Boom Records.

So why no 40th anniversary Broadway production? There have been attempts in recent years to revive Hair on Broadway, but the surviving creators (Ragni died in 1991) can’t seem to agree on what the production should be — what, if any, of the seemingly constant revisions over the years should be incorporated, etc. It seems if there ever were a time for a Hair revival, what with the 40th anniversary of the musical and the Summer of Love and the fact that we’re a country at war, this would be it. Missed opportunity.

Oscar, You’re the One That I want

The Academy Awards came and went without making much impression. Ellen DeGeneres was fun, just as you’d expect.

The nicest surprise to me was the best foreign film winner, The Lives of Others. Fantastic movie. Deserves every prize there is.

Enjoyed watching best supporting actress winner Jennifer Hudson wipe the floor with Miss Beyonce during the Dreamgirls best song medley. Glad none of those songs won because they’re just not as good as the songs from the original show. Sad that Randy Newman’s “Our Town” (a fine, sad song from Cars about the death of the American small town) didn’t win, although I can’t begrudge Melissa Etheridge anything.

Loved Ellen’s line: “Without blacks, gays and Jews, there’d be no Oscars…or guys named Oscar for that matter.”

If you were watching the Academy Awards instead of “Grease: You’re the One That I Want,” well good for you. If you’re not reading Seth Rudetsky’s weekly wrap-up on, you’re missing out. Go there now.

Here’s a sample of Mr. Rudetsky’s (right) brilliance (and whey he’s so much more fun than the actual show:

First of all, from the low cut-ness of the negligees the girls were spilling out of, I thought it was going to be a medley from Boobs: The Musical (which actually played the Triad Theatre). Zowee! Also, they cut the “Fongool” lyric. I know it’s an Italian curse, but nevertheless I felt gypped. I was sitting on my couch saying out loud to no one, “Where’s the fongool?” Not unlike the time I saw the “Evita” movie and was in a rage asking, “Where’s the aristocracy?” (“All my descamisados expect me to outshine the enemy, [the aristocracy]. I won’t disappoint them!”) Why did Madonna cut that lyric? And, on a related note, didn’t the real Eva Peron have a vibrato? Why didn’t the movie version?

Apparently this week there was singing, dancing and acting by all the potential Sandys. Now aren’t you glad you didn’t watch. Oh, and the special guest was Frankie Avalon.

The cuts were: Kate Rockwell and Kevin Greene. Next week – can you believe there’s a next week? — it’s all about the Dannys.

In the `Dreamgirls’ groove

As I understand it, my responsibility as a blogger is that elusive thing called BUZZ.

That said, let me buzz a little about Dreamgirls, which I saw last week after spending much of the year in jittery anticipation of its arrival.

First off, I love that the movie is dedicated to the memory of Michael Bennett, the director and co-producer/co-choreographer of the original 1981 Broadway production. Bennett’s fluid style was all over Dreamgirls in the way songs, scenes and dialogue flowed seamlessly, one into the other.

I’m not going to do a full-on review of Bill Condon’s movie except to say that it’s good, and parts of it are great. On the continuum of recent Broadway-to-movie adaptations, it’s not as good as Chicago, but it’s a whole lot better than Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera.

Jennifer Hudson (left) as Effie Melody White steals the show (as any good Effie should — this really is her story) and wipes the floor with Miss Beyonce, who couldn’t look more fabulous. But let me say that she and Diana Ross have more in common than they know.

American Conservatory Theater grad Anika Noni Rose is pretty wonderful, as is Eddie Murphy, whose final musical number is fantastic

Amid all the flash and spectacle of Dreamgirls, there are still issues: is this a real-life drama set in the music industry with lots of musical numbers? Or is this a full-on musical where people .burst into song when they might otherwise speak like normal people?

There’s some squeamishness about these issues in Dreamgirls, and all the fancy editing and flashing lights in the world can’t disguise that.

Still, it’s pretty great to be discussing a big musical this holiday season, so go see Dreamgirls and turn it into a box-office success so they’ll keep turning Broadway shows into movies.

In fact, you can see Dreamgirls early — if you want to pony up $25 (which includes a souvenir program) — when it opens Dec. 15 at the Metreon in San Francisco as part of a limited engagement “road show” in SF, New York and Los Angeles. Click here for more information.