Jennifer Holliday is best known for playing the embattled singer Effie White in the original 1981 Broadway production of Dreamgirls. With an emotional, powerhouse voice, Holliday made an indelible mark—her riveting rendition of the show’s climactic first act showstopper, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is considered one of the great theater performances of all time. Fans of Holliday’s stunning voice will have the opportunity to see her perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center on Saturday, May 25.
“I’ll definitely be singing some songs from Dreamgirls,” Holliday previews, “and I’ve grown quite a bit, I feel, musically, so I’ll be doing some jazz standards and some other pop songs.” Holliday acknowledges that “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is legendary, but admits she was surprised how the song took on a life of its own. “I had no idea! Back then, we didn’t even have cell phones, so in terms of creating something that could live in people’s hearts and minds, because it was passed on from generation to generation, we’re talking almost 40 years now. I run into people who say, ‘My mother brought me to see Dreamgirls when I was 10 years old.’ That was part of the reason why it lasted so long. Because it was a lot of people’s first Broadway show. The word of mouth started there,” she says, noting that the 2006 film (in which Jennifer Hudson played Effie White) also helped revive fandom for the show.
Despite becoming a huge hit with audiences, Dreamgirls received mixed reviews when it reached Broadway. “Life is funny like that. We didn’t win for Best Musical,” Holliday recalls. Of course, Holliday won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
Great professional success and a prestigious award may have solidified Holliday as one of Broadway’s greats, but the star struggled with depression, which was unfortunately stigmatized and often ignored at the time. “I suffered greatly with clinical depression for most of my adult life. When I was 30 years old I tried to commit suicide,” Holliday says. “I don’t know actually know, when it started, if people were really even talking about depression the way they are now. Then maybe I would have gotten some help earlier. Because a lot of it was gaining weight, gaining weight, people just thought, ‘Okay, she’s just eating a lot.’ Nobody said, ‘Jennifer, is something going on that you’re gaining this weight?’ It wasn’t until later that I got diagnosed and understood what was going on. And back then it was very lonely. You did eight shows a week, and you had one day off, and on that day off I was resting my voice. Here I am the star of a show, a young girl, but here I am taking on the responsibilities of a full woman…food was the way that I could find some comfort, some solace.” Holliday has since sought help and believes anyone struggling should speak up.
Holliday is also a gay icon, with “And I Am Telling You” becoming a kind of anthem for many gay men. “Drag queens wanted to be Dreamgirls!” Holliday exclaims, before acknowledging that Dreamgirls, and the Broadway community, was devastated by the AIDS crisis. “That was at the height of it,” she says. “All the creative people from the show except [composer] Henry Krieger have died of AIDS, as well as most of the male chorus.” But Holliday believes that the Broadway world brought some peace to the community during that time.
See Jennifer Holliday perform at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach, on Saturday, May 25. For tickets and more information, visit whbpac.org.