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Out of the picture

Jennifer Holliday, who starred onstage in 'Dreamgirls,' feels swept aside as a film nears.

December 12, 2006|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

New York — JENNIFER HOLLIDAY stood on a small stage, pouring out a song of hope and battling the odds. Her gut-wrenching voice tore from her throat with volcanic force, and her expression, all closed eyes and open mouth, was of a performer possessed, exorcising the anguish deep inside her.

The overflow crowd in the narrow Ars Nova performance space in Manhattan sat entranced, then exploded into whooping cheers as Holliday -- best known as the rotund actress who helped make the original "Dreamgirls" a smash hit -- belted her final triumphant note. Opening her eyes to see the standing ovation, Holliday beamed, saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you" in a humble, almost sheepish voice.

She had agreed to the short, no-frills gig last Tuesday as a favor for Lewis Flinn and Steven Slater, two Broadway songwriters testing out some new material. But the tunesmiths and audience had no clue how much the inspirational lyrics and thunderous response had pulled the singer from despair's edge.

Instead of being swept up in the hoopla over the new film adaptation of "Dreamgirls," Holliday feels as if she is being swept aside.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 15, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Jennifer Holliday: An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about "Dreamgirls" star Jennifer Holliday misspelled the last name of songwriter Steven Sater as Slater.

"The timing of me singing those words came just at the right moment," Holliday said, relaxing after the show in one of her favorite haunts, a French restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. "I needed to be singing a song of encouragement right now, I need those words myself.... I had just felt like they had taken everything away from me, had ripped my legacy from me."

The "they" in this case are Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures and the makers of the highly anticipated $75-million movie musical "Dreamgirls," opening Friday in limited release before going wide on Christmas Day.

The movie, starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy, is the film version of the 1981 Broadway musical inspired by the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes that became a smash hit -- as well as a major cultural milestone for African Americans -- largely on the then-massive shoulders of Holliday.

To critics, audiences and stars such as Barbra Streisand, Holliday's portrayal of Effie White, who is unceremoniously dumped just as the girl group she has fronted is poised for stardom, was the heart and soul of "Dreamgirls." Her show-stopping rendition of the defiant anthem "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" brought audiences to their feet and became the hit musical's hallmark. Holliday, who was only 21 when the show opened, won a Tony for outstanding actress in a musical.

She says her Tony Award-winning legacy, as well as the commemoration of the musical's 25th anniversary, has been effectively wiped out by the filmmakers, presumably in the relentless drive to keep the spotlight focused on the movie's stars and propel "Dreamgirls" to Oscar gold.

Paramount and DreamWorks declined to address why the most recognizable link to "Dreamgirls' " honored past appears to be passed over. Holliday said she was particularly heartbroken when friends told her that it is her version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the show's trademark song, that plays in one of the film's trailers. In other words, her voice is being used to sell a production that had shut her out.

In a Hollywood-style twist of fate, Holliday, 46, has unwittingly become a reflection of her most famous role.

She has worked steadily over the years but has never come close to matching her glory days as Effie. Now, armed with her most powerful weapon -- her gospel-flavored roar -- she is striving to overcome the "Dreamgirls" noise and declare the value of her artistry to herself, those around her and the world.

"Why is it necessary for them to wipe out my existence in order for them to have their success?" Holliday said. "It's scary that they can be so cruel. I know it's business, but why do they have to go to this extreme? I'm a human being. I need to work too. Why do I have to die to make them a winner?"

Her eyes welled up as she looked off into the distance. She is a slimmer, softer and prettier version of her 340-pound self -- she had gastric bypass surgery several years ago.

Post-"Dreamgirls," Holliday's professional career and personal life could produce enough material for several Broadway shows: A suicide attempt at 30. Bankruptcy. Two failed marriages. Bouts with clinical depression.

She dropped out of the public eye for years, drawing a startled reaction when she showed up in 1997 -- 200 pounds lighter and more glamorous -- on "Ally McBeal" in a recurring role as a choir director. Many wondered if the weight loss affected the power of her instrument: "It didn't. The voice has never failed me. It's always been there."

And although "Dreamgirls" has not had a major stage production for more than 20 years, Holliday said she had been the only one keeping the torch burning, performing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" at the private parties, corporate dates and engagements at gay nightclubs that have been her key source of income.

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