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.