Legendary Motown Musical Destined for the Top of the Charts (1/07)

It has taken a quarter of a century, but a cinematic Dreamgirls has finally been realized that equals--and in some ways, surpasses--its stage sister-under-the-sequins creation, which the late, great director and choreographer Michael Bennett delivered with much hoopla and chutzpah on Broadway Dec. 20, 1981.

In that audience at the Imperial Theatre on opening night--seated in the back row with friends--was Bill Condon, then 26, thunderstruck by the theatre he had just seen. His love of the show never left him, as you can soon see for yourself: Dreamgirls, decked out in hot-red wrapping and spangles, is the most conspicuous present under this year's tree--a $70-million dazzler--and (except for premiere engagements in New York and L.A.) Paramount has marked it "Do Not Open Till Christmas Day."

The play's first act ended with an almost audible heartbreak, set to Henry Krieger's music and Tom Eyen's lyrics and executed by a stout, betrayed, broken woman being shoved out of the star spot by a reconfiguration of her trio act that leans to--well, to the lean (as in slinky and sexy). Her anguished reply: "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," a cry-of-the-heart that drew tears and cheers from the audience. (A Tony and a career came later for the unknown doing the heavy lifting, Jennifer Holliday.)

"Remember how thrilling that was!" Condon exclaims, reliving the moment. "None of us had ever heard that song before. The shouting in the middle of it! It was unbelievable!"

It is a testament to Condon's love, memory and directorial skill that nothing about this Supreme moment (pun intended) has been lost in the translation from stage to screen.

Nothing. And something may have been gained, with the camera swirling dizzily at close range like a matador's cape among the involved and angst-filled principals. Preview audiences in screening rooms and movies houses across the country have been forgetting where they are and applauding just as if they were witnessing a live performance on Broadway--a rare achievement for a mere movie, and an omen that bodes well for the film's future.

This make-or-break scene, recalls Condon, was slated for a day-and-a-half shoot, "and we wound up taking four days to get through it, but then obviously we'd done quite a bit of rehearsing. There was an awful lot of standing around, thinking about it and planning."

This time, the odd star out is another unknown (for now) Jennifer--Hudson--who, with an incredible set of pipes and a four-octave range that won't let go, should have a hell of a career ahead of her--and, yes, a Supporting Actress Oscar as well. (Take that to the bank.)

Coming (again) out of nowhere, the 25-year-old Hudson was an early washout on season three of "American Idol" and working a Disney cruise ship when she boarded this love boat to The Big Time, beating an actual "Idol" winner (Fantasia Barrino) and 780 others to win the plump, plumb part of Effie Melody White, centerpiece of a "girl group" called The Dreamettes in 1960s Detroit, getting chauffeured into the stratosphere by a car salesman with delusions of grandeur that he soon makes a reality.

Unfortunately, this huckster, Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx), is a worm that turns. He decides, despite Her Sound, the ever-thickening Effie should be relegated to backup with Lorrell Robinson (Tony winner Anika Noni Rose) and the looker with the lesser voice, Deena Jones (Grammy winner Beyoncé Knowles), placed front and center.

If there is a distant historical echo in all of the above, there should be. Eyen's original book musical played fast and loose with the facts of the rise of the Motown Records, and that was the fun of it--known characters indulging in backstage backstabbing.

How he and Bennett got away with it, no one knows, but there was never any legal action for the rest of their days. (Both died of AIDS within the decade after Dreamgirls bowed.)

Most likely, Motown honcho Berry Gordy reveled in the exploitation, good or bad, and embraced John Ford's philosophy: "When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend."

Condon says the real-life models for Dreamgirls always stayed at arm's length from the property, and he expects them to do the same with the film version. "I believe Mary Wilson saw the show and liked it, but Diana Ross has always said she never saw it."

Should they happen into a movie theatre some rainy afternoon and see what Condon hath wrought, they would not necessarily find themselves, but a staggeringly emotional, deeply involving American saga of people riding the comet of success. Condon went to some pains not to do a biopic, thank you very much. His script creates characters and actions from throwaway lines in the show and makes the piece more accessible to a mass audience.

"So much of the show was sung through. It was almost an opera, and I don't think that works as well on film. Obviously, performance numbers work. You want to feel the film is grounded in a kind of reality and has the music come out of the dramatic situation."

As a screenwriter gaining confidence every Oscar race (he won the award for Gods and Monsters and nabbed a nomination for Chicago), Condon departed from the book musical's spiraling descent to a different kind of down. In particular, he finds a new fate for James "Thunder" Early, an aging rocker suffering career slippage and drug dependency. (Eddie Murphy, of all surprising people, plays this part--and rates the Oscar buzz.)

"I think you can become more intimate with characters often because of the camera," contends Condon. "For example, Effie's relationship with her daughter, who was just mentioned in a line on stage, becomes a crux of the second act. In the second act, there are lots of ways in which the characters go to darker places than they did in the show."

How did Dreamgirls get back on screen track? In a word: Condon (that aforementioned love of the show). He found the show where he found Chicago--in that great elephant burial ground where all stage musicals go when they haven't been filmed in 20 years.

"About four years ago, right after Chicago opened, I went to David Geffen and sort of laid out an approach I would take in adapting it. I think it was pretty dormant at that time. He was in a mood to listen, and he was intrigued enough to go ahead and let me write the script. I made the Kinsey movie in between, so there was a delay, but I wrote the script and he responded to it. He's sort of a one-man show. He said, 'Go ahead and make it.'"

Geffen had co-produced the original show and, as co-founder of DreamWorks, which produced the film with new parent company Paramount, was waiting for just such an offer he couldn't refuse.

Filming started Jan. 4 of this year. It was preceded by ten intense days of Diva 101 in which tentative novice Hudson was grilled and drilled by Condon in the flouncy ways of superstardom. This workout seems to have done the trick, and the writing of the role--the rejection and rebellion written into it--helped her deliver a universally accessible heroine.

"Jennifer Holliday was too old to do the role now. That's the thing about movies. They really get up close to you. You really had to believe these girls were teenagers, so, by definition, it had to be somebody who was pretty much a newcomer. I knew Jennifer Hudson could sing because of 'American Idol,' but I didn't know what a natural kind of actress she was until I had a chance to sit down and work with her for a while."

Condon is obviously proud of the result, but it's not necessarily his favorite performance in the film. "Because people are so connected to Jennifer, I have to say that, in putting together this movie, I've always been blown away by what Beyoncé Knowles pulls off. She's the last one to wake up to Curtis and to find her own voice, and that's a difficult position to be in because she's so much more passive, more tentative. She's a really strong actress. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the work she did--and the way it comes through in this."

Knowles has an excellent shot at a Best Actress nomination, but she won't trump The Queen (Helen Mirren). Her best chance of winning an Oscar will be as a lyricist. She contributed the words to her big number--"Listen"--one of four new songs Krieger composed with different lyricists, and it's a dilly, as is the whole score. It's as though the music has marinated for 25 years and come out better and stronger than memory had it.
Some songs were cut. "One that was shot that Deena does will be on the CD [a la the "Class" number clipped from his Chicago film]. It just came so late in the movie. Then Lorrell had a fun song, 'Ain't No Party,' but there are great stage numbers that sometimes don't translate to film, and that one really is a three-minute rant that doesn't move the story."

The story, first and last, was what pulled Condon into this project. "Obviously, there's a lot of great stuff all the way through--the wonderful score, the main characters--but there's something so basic about the predicament of these characters: feeling just a little on the outside as you move into trying to find your spot in the world, making sure you're not left out, standing up for who you are and presenting that to the world."

Yes, he's aware of the euphoric reaction his film has been getting in pre-release screenings--but does he trust it? "So far, I'm very happy sitting with audiences, seeing them react to it. If you love something, that's all you can hope for--that you show it to people, and they respond in the same way. That is the only true reward."

Dreamgirls is dedicated to its creator, Michael Bennett, who first shared the love with Bill Condon on Dec. 20, 1981. "Believe me, he was on my mind every day of writing and prepping this film. Absolutely. I think if you know Bennett shows, you'll see there are little nods to them along the way--not just this one, but Ballroom and A Chorus Line, too."