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BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE

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Coinciding with DREAMGIRLS 40th Anniversary, DREAMGIRLS’ original Effie Jennifer Holliday will perform her concert HERE’S TO LIFE at The Wallis October 9th

BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE

Coinciding with DREAMGIRLS 40th Anniversary, DREAMGIRLS' original Effie Jennifer Holliday will perform her concert HERE'S TO LIFE at The Wallis October 9, 2021.

Had the chance to chat with Jennifer of her current LIFE, her signature song, and her one-upping lockdown.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Jennifer!

HERE'S TO LIFE won't be the first time you performed at The Wallis. Was the first time when you were part of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS honoring Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad in 2018? Or was there an earlier performance?

No, that's actually the first time that I was introduced to The Wallis. It's like coming around full circle.

Will your set list for HERE'S TO LIFE be completely different from your 60th BIRTHDAY CONCERT? You have to include your DREAMGIRLS songs at every show, right?

Yes, every show has to include DREAMGIRLS. I'm so glad that it had a good repertoire. I always have to sing my signature song, and then it depends on what the audience is, is debatable whether I have to sing the other two. But yes, so it will include DREAMGIRLS, and it will include the song "Here's To Life," as a celebration of life. It will include a few different songs, of course, like some jazz standards, and just popular tunes, because I only had one hit record. I have to do a lot of covers.

Have you lost count of how many times you've sang "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going"?

Yeah, I have lost count. I'm just very fortunate that I can still sing my song, you know what I'm saying? I don't know if you're aware that this year, in December, is the 40th anniversary of DREAMGIRLS opening on Broadway. It's a very special time and very sentimental. I'm going to be performing on the Tony Awards next week. The Tony Awards, as you know, we didn't have it last year and it's usually in June. They're doing a "Welcome back to Broadway" concert, combined with a few special Tony Awards given out. That's going to be on Sunday, September 26th. We're doing it at the Winter Garden Theatre live streaming on CBS.

I can't believe DREAMGIRLS opened on Broadway forty years ago. Do you remember what your audition song for Michael Bennett was?

BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE I didn't audition for Michael Bennett. He came to see me. I was already on Broadway in a show called YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD at the Ambassador Theatre. I was already on Broadway and he came to see me. Then he asked me and Cleavant Derricks to come to a workshop that they were doing. It wasn't called DREAMGIRLS then, it was just called A PROJECT. Yeah, I think they did play around with BIG DREAMS at one time. That's what they were thinking about. They were already in production. Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine were already a part of the original workshop. Michael Bennett asked me and Cleavant Derricks to join in. Once we came on board, he took over the project. At first, he was just paying for it to happen. But then once we came on board, he took it over and became the director of the piece. It all began to change a bit because at first it was pretty much a vehicle for Sheryl Lee Ralph before I had come on. That's the truth. She wrote about it in her book. DREAMGIRLS was her vehicle. She and Tom Eyen had worked a long time before I came along.

Just like The Supremes.

Sorta like The Supremes but not exactly like The Supremes.

Did you had an inkling that "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going" was going to be as big as it was/is?

No, I didn't because at that time when I first heard it and was interested, I was only 19 years old. I don't really know if I understood about the magic of Broadway. Michael Bennett was trying to teach me everything that he could do for Broadway, because I lived in Houston, Texas. So to come up to Broadway and learn everything he was constantly teaching me... I really didn't know what he could create. But he, of course, he knew. He and the other ones because they had been in theater for a while, and they were older. They knew that they all had something, and that's why they kept going. Effie originally was not in the second act. She was only in the first act. Once we got that song worked out, Michael Bennett said, "Okay, we gotta have Jennifer continue because the audience is going to want to hear more of her or know more about her." That's when, unfortunately for Sheryl Lee, that's when it became not her show anymore. But she turned out great, didn't she?

What was the most effective direction your DREAMGIRLS' director Michael Bennett gave you?

He wouldn't let me take any acting classes. He wanted me to learn about understanding song interpretation, and how you tell a story through song. He gave me all of these Barbra Streisand tapes. He was saying, "You see how she is telling us?" The musicals he gave me like FUNNY GIRL. "See how she's telling the story through the song? How it has to connect? You can't disconnect the song from the whole show, right? It can't just be about you and your number. It has to have more continuity because of others." To me, that was the greatest valuable lesson that he taught me - to interpret a story through song, not about how great I can riff or how great I can sing. How can I tell this story? How can I communicate this story through a song? How do I make the audience feel my heart and everything? Even if I don't speak any words, I'm singing this song. I think that's the greatest direction that he helped me with.

BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE Of course, it doesn't hurt that you have all these great riffs and all these great notes you can hold.

(Laughing) Yeah, that doesn't hurt!

How do you keep that song and other songs in your repertoire fresh?

Well, I greet each audience as they are. They are new audience. So having travelled around the world and all across the United States, small cities, large cities. I've had to sing on some symphony dates where it was an all-white audience, or I've had to do some different things. So I've had to adapt to each audience. I could not be on automatic. If I'm with an audience that were all my fans, well, they already know everything that I do. They're so supportive right from the start. But some audiences I have to win over. And that's not a problem. Some of them I have to introduce myself to them. Because like I said, you only have that one hit "And I'm Not Telling You," and that don't come to the end.

I remember seeing the musical DREAMGIRLS, and I was so blown away by your number.

Thank you.

But right after you finish "And I'm Not Telling You," it goes right into the next scene. Everyone wanted to applause. I wanted to give you a standing ovation and it goes into the next scene, and we couldn't. So what was the original idea behind starting the next scene right after the song without you getting your deserved ovation?

Michael Bennett felt that there were no stars in his show, number one. That's what he told me. In any of his shows, everything is about the piece. Having that kind of interruption would disturb coming back for a second act. Also for the sake of the piece that it kept moving, that people would not be just applauding crazily forever.

In fact, he didn't even want to give me a separate bow in the show. During curtain call, he didn't even want to do that, because he was saying that there are no stars in the show. But eventually he had to because one night we were in Boston the audience wouldn't leave. They just kept saying, "Jennifer, come back." I was like, "Wow, ok."

I always thought "And I'm Not Telling You" would have been a great first act closer. Then the curtain goes down, and everyone could scream and yell for you.

That's what Michael Bennett wanted to do. It was okay, because even after when that curtain comes down, the audience still would do a delay scream. It was okay, it didn't bother me. Like I said, "What did I know?" You know what I'm saying? I was only 20 years old when we were in Boston, and then I turned 21 right before we opened on Broadway,

So you could have a drink with everybody.

I sure could. But they wouldn't let me though. Because they were like, "You got to save that voice. Don't start drinking... and you got to show up, too."

BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE Do you do still warm up your vocal cords before each performance?

I don't have a trained voice. So I've never done any vocalizing or warm-up or anything like that.

You do take care of your voice?

I do take care of my voice. And that is the thing. If I've taken care of it, and as long as I don't have the flu or something, then I know exactly what I have. A warm-up for me could work two ways. One way, you could frighten me if all of my voice is not there during the time I'm warming up. I used to do DREAMGIRLS eight shows a week. Sometimes when it got near the weekend, my voice would feel hoarse or sore. I would never warm up or anything because if I would hear that it wasn't there, then that would frighten me. What happens to us as soon as we hit that stage, our voice magically appears. It's something about that adrenaline. Something about the audience just gives you that thing to go through. First of all, I never knew to do that in the beginning when I was younger, even though other people would warm up. I never did. I just wanted to go out cold because if I'd already done a preparation, then it should be there.

Would you share with us one of your most wonderful memory of that show?

I have so many. I am trying to think what would be the most special one. When we first did out-of-town tryouts in Boston, which they don't really do now, because it cost so much. In Boston, a lot of those I held more precious, because that was pretty much a totally white audience, and an older audience on the weekend. I had to try to learn what to do with getting through that second act in the scene where it was new to Michael Bennett. They hadn't planned on Effie to be in the second act. I was trying to visualize, create, and not having a lot of acting experience. Well, none because in BOX OF GOD, I only sang, I did not act. The first time that I did "I Am Changing" there. And everyone got it, you know, especially when I did the key change, and they got it. I began to feel like I was an actress. I sing it well, but I also had to get all of the other stuff in. Everything that Michael Bennett had taught me, and spending hours and hours with me, finally had started to come together then. And that was around, it was maybe the fall of 1981 working in Boston. They were kind of nervous too, because they were like, "Well, she's not really like an actress yet." Then Michael Bennett came to me, and he was so happy. And he said, "I'm so proud of you that audience knew everything that you were trying to convey." That's one of my fondest memories career wise. Getting Effie in that second act and making it right for her.

I did eight shows a week. I didn't have a lot of time for myself personally during DREAMGIRLS, so maybe wonderful personal memories would be the caliber of stars that we had coming through - Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minelli, Michael Jackson. The list went on in terms of people who came to see the show, and everybody who came through to give us support for that show. I think from a personal perspective, that was amazing, at such a young age to have people of that caliber come to see the show, and then come back again and give us that kind of support.

Besides performing your 60th BIRTHDAY CONCERT virtually last October 19th, your actual birthday, what else did you do to keep yourself creatively sane during this lockdown?

BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE You might have noted that I had suffered greatly with clinical depression throughout most of my adult life. It was the first time my therapy paid off. Everybody was freaking out about being on lockdown. I have been locked down many years on my own, my own self-imprisonment through my years of struggling with depression. During the pandemic, I was not afraid, and I was not bored or anything like that. Being a loner, I had already learned a lot about myself and learned about how to cope. I was able to apply a lot of my years of therapy, a lot of trying to stay calm. Once I realized that it was out of our control, this was something new for the whole world, this was something that we couldn't do anything about; I began to really relax and go deeper and just use the time to do some extra reading, some songwriting and that sort of thing. So basically, I had already had a coping mechanism, because I had to learn from such an early time.

What venues have you played that you would rate as having the best sound systems for vocals?

Meyerson Symphony Hall in Dallas County. There is quite a few, but my mind is going blank right now. But Dallas because I performed there many times.

You've performed on stages around the world. Is there a place you haven't that you would love to wow the audience at?

Yes, so many. I would love to perform in the Philippines because I have so many fans there. I know that that's not exotic or anything. But they have loved me so. I have worked with two Filipino young ladies, one on American Idol Jessica Sanchez.

Maybe to perform in Paris. I don't know what a French audience would be like.

They do love good music. I've been there many times, but not to perform.

Australia, went there two years ago. That was the first time I've been there. They received me so well. I didn't know what to expect. I was so grateful. Any country wants me to come, I have my vaccine card and my passport. I'm ready to come.

Besides February 2022 dates at Feinstein's/54 Below, what's in the near future for Jennifer Holliday?

BWW Interview: Original DREAMGIRL Jennifer Holliday Toasting TO LIFE Right now, I don't know. A lot of people still waiting to lock us in for certain things. A lot of people been calling for 2022 and 2023. But everybody's still kind of nervous about where we're going to be and how we're going to start off. I'm a little bit in a holding pattern with that.

I actually met you before in 1997 when you guested on Vibe hosted by Sinbad. I was a talent coordinator on that show. You were nice enough to sign your CD for me.

That was a great show. It didn't continue long. I was glad to be on that show especially because it dealt with records and music with my career.

Well, thank you again, Jennifer! I look forward to seeing you at The Wallis. Hopefully I'll get to say, "Hi!' afterwards.

Oh, I think so. I would love for you to come backstage.

For tickets to the live one-nighter of HERE'S TO LIFE October 9, 2021; log onto www.thewallis.org


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