Friday, October 19, 2012

Birthday Girl: She is Telling us...

Jennifer Holliday had the great gift - ah, but double-edged, as so many of fame's gifts are - of a signature role.  In only her second Broadway outing, she achieved a perfect synthesis of individual talent and ideal part, and it is hardly her fault that everything ever after has seemed something of an afterthought.  Thirty years after Dreamgirls, she remains a working performer (she finished up a brief run, in fact, in what she says is her last go at Effie this past July, in St. Louis; reviews were positive, if tactful), and she can go to her grave knowing that her great moment was preserved: here, at the 1982 Tonys.

This is, simply, a one of a kind performance:  vocally fearless, utterly without vanity, a titanic eruption of pain, wounded pride, fury, and a love that rages at its own inability to make things right.  It takes a bad moment in a reckless woman's life and turns it into an epic meltdown, one is both musically overwhelming and psychologically totally convincing.  Holliday, under the acute direction of Michael Bennett, delivers something that is both shockingly non-naturalistic (sheer soap opera in the dialogue and pop-recitative that opens the number, and then as it all builds, something like kabuki as she staggers, pleads, implores, and ultimately collapses) and completely, uncompromisingly real.  Anyone who isn't riveted by the 6:00 minute mark, when Effie more or less leaves reality behind, has neither heart nor soul (one wonders, too, whether actor Ben Harney, as the manipulative Curtis, had any hearing at all left in his right ear by the end of the show's original run).

"I am Telling You" is a pop-opera "Rose's Turn," but sadly for Holliday, it didn't, as for Merman, cap a long career.  Instead, it set a standard that no future material could live up to, no future performance match.  What do you do for the rest of your life, if you climb Everest the first time out?

Jennifer Holliday has spent three decades finding that out, and it is to her credit that she's done so with grace and perseverance.  She is 52 today.


  1. When this was aired, I watched it at a gay bar (imagine that!). My friend and I were so moved we held hands. Many people cried. It was a simpler time, and the Plague had not yet wreaked it's havoc.

    Thanks for the memories.

  2. My parents got me tickets to Dreamgirls as a HS graduation present (tell me they weren't clued in early). Front row center mezz. I was beside myself with anticipation. Sat down, opened my Playbill, and found out that Jennifer had just left the production. It was marvelous nonetheless, but I missed HER. Amazing stuff on this tape.

  3. I don't know about you, but I can't imagine even showing up for the casting call to try and replace that.

    And my parents got me a Timex and a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I had to explain things to them a little at a time over the next decade, despite warning signs from the age of six that make the last two minutes of this video seem subtle.

    Also, now that I'm off on a tangent anyway, in any other production, Holliday's singing of "I'm Changing" in the second act could have been a star-maker, not least because of its audacious on-stage costume change (from recording studio to performance, courtesy of a pin spot on her face only while stagehands change her clothes). It's also on Youtube and worth checking out...

  4. We got tickets to the origional, during a week when she'd been off sick. When the curtain went up and she came out, the house exploded. And she WAS incredible.