The angry anthem at the heart of the musical has its very own cult following.
While reaction to “Dreamgirls” has been mixed, the one thing critics seem to agree on is Jennifer Hudson’s assault on the musical’s anthem-of-the-scorned, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The New York Times says Hudson’s performance carries the “goose-bumped thrill of witnessing something new, even historic.” The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed the performance “one of the most exhilarating scenes in this year’s cinema.” Rolling Stone simply called it “revelatory.”
Hudson’s version of the song is a big part of why the “American Idol” also-ran has some serious Oscar hype, but her performance also stirs up memories of another Jennifer — one who also came out of nowhere and rode the song to stardom. Jennifer Holliday was the first Effie, and her performance in Michael Bennett’s original production of “Dreamgirls,” is a part of Broadway lore and launched the careers of a thousand drag queens. It also anticipated much of the same praise and criticism being levied at the new “Dreamgirls.”
In his 1981 New York Times review of “Dreamgirls,” Frank Rich singled out Holliday’s work on “And I Am Telling You,” calling it “one of the most powerful theatrical coups to be found in a Broadway musical since Ethel Merman sang ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’” in 1959′s “Gypsy.” Looking back, Rich points out that Holliday’s personal history — the then 21-year-old native of Riverside, Texas, had only had one major Broadway role before “Dreamgirls” — was a key factor in the legend of the performance.
“In theatrical terms, no one had ever heard of her,” says Rich. “To see an unknown performer close the first act of a big Broadway musical with such an emotional, well-sung star turn will almost inevitably cause a sensation on Broadway.”
And cause a sensation it did. Holliday earned a Tony for the role, and it was on the 1982 award-show telecast that she delivered a ferocious performance (you can watch it here) that left audience members’ mouths agape, and which further burnished her legend.
“The passion she put into that song was like an act of God,” says Billy Zavelson, a producer on “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and “Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway.” “Everyone who cares about musical theater knows that performance.”
Holliday followed up her Broadway success by cutting “And I Am Telling You” as an R&B record — which became a chart hit and won a Grammy. The song also gained Holliday a legion of fans in the gay community, who latched on to the almost unbearable level of emotion she imbued it with, as well as its lyrical message of defiance in the face of heartbreak.
“That type of song has always resonated with gay audiences. It tapped into everyone’s fears of abandonment,” says Michael Musto, longtime Village Voice gossip columnist, and who used to lip-sync to Holliday’s version of the song as the finale to the sets he played with his band the Musts. “[Holliday] was acting out every degrading humiliation and every uncouth reaction we all want to do when we’re dumped but don’t — because we have to face people the next day.”
Holliday’s performance, shepherded along by Bennett’s innovative direction, also struck a chord with gay listeners because it showed the singer doing what many of them could not do: Holliday was unabashedly expressing herself. “If you were ever afraid of who you were, or were never able to fit in, you’re going to respond to that type of commitment,” says Zavelson. “Putting yourself out there 100 percent — it’s not easy to do.”
But while Holliday’s over-the-top theatrics drew her a legion of fans, they earned their share of detractors, too. “The song works dramatically, but taken outside of the context of the musical it seemed overwrought in a way that Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight never were,” says Nelson George, the author of “Where Did Our Love Go: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound” and “The Death of Rhythm and Blues.” George also contends that the show’s music — meant to mirror the sound of one of black popular culture’s greatest periods, roughly the mid-1960s to the early ’80s — never quite transcends pastiche. “When you hear the music in the play and the film, you’re hearing the echoes of Motown, of the Supremes, of James Brown and Wilson Pickett,” he says. “But the music, including ‘And I Am Telling You,’ never sounds like more than an imitation.”
And even though Holliday regularly brought the house down during her nearly four-year run as Effie, not everyone in the audience leapt to their feet. “I thought she went way over-the-top on that number,” says David Barbour, a writer for Broadway.com and editor in chief of Lighting & Sound, a trade journal for the entertainment technology industry. “What you’re really looking at with that performance is the greatness of Michael Bennett.” Bennett, who died of complications from AIDS in 1987, directed the show and, with Michael Peters, did the choreography, for which he won a Tony.
“The entire show was framed so well and the story structure was so strong — with the way the whole first act builds toward ‘And I Am Telling You’ — it’s almost impossible not to get a great reaction,” Barbour says. Besides, he adds, “Where are the other great Jennifer Holliday performances?”
While Holliday had a busy career after “Dreamgirls,” charting with the occasional R&B song, making guest appearances on TV shows like “Touched by an Angel” and “Ally McBeal,” and performing regularly at gay-themed events and fundraisers, she never again reached the heights of “And I Am Telling You.”
“She pigeonholed herself,” says Zavelson. “She wasn’t able to do anything where she wasn’t the standout.”
Rich puts it more simply: “That performance outlasted her career.”
Holliday was back in the news when she publicly complained about her lack of involvement in the new “Dreamgirls.” Maybe the filmmakers instinctively knew what audiences are just finding out — Effie doesn’t belong to Jennifer Holliday anymore.
“Jennifer Holliday owned that role. It was like Marlon Brando and Stanley Kowalski,” says Musto. “But Jennifer Hudson did a great job. Maybe it’ll be her role now.”
David Marchese is associate music editor at Salon. More David Marchese.
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11