And she is telling you she's not going

SPOTLIGHT ON -- Jennifer Holliday

December 22, 2006|By Greg Braxton | Greg Braxton,LOS ANGELES TIMES

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.

The 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.

She had agreed to the short, no-frills gig as a favor for two Broadway songwriters testing out 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 is being swept aside.

"The timing of me singing those words came just at the right moment," Holliday said after the show. "I needed to be singing a song of encouragement right now. ... 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 $75 million movie musical Dreamgirls, opening nationally 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 black Americans - largely on the shoulders of Holliday.

To critics and audiences, Holliday's portrayal of Effie White, who is 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 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 ignored by the filmmakers. Paramount and DreamWorks declined to address why the most recognizable link to Dreamgirls appeared to be passed over.

Holliday was particularly heartbroken when friends told her that her version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the show's trademark song, plays in one of the film's trailers. In other words, her voice is being used to sell a production that 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 and the world.

"Why is it necessary for them to wipe out my existence in order for them to have their success?" Holliday said. "I'm a human being. I need to work, too."

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 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 whether the weight loss affected the power of her instrument: "It didn't. The voice has never failed me."

Some speculate that the filmmakers fear that comparisons to Holliday may dull the glow surrounding the performance of Jennifer Hudson, the former American Idol contestant who plays Effie in the film. Hudson has been considered an early favorite for an Oscar nomination.

Dreamgirls was a phenomenon when it premiered Dec. 20, 1981, on Broadway.

The show won six Tonys and ran for nearly four years, with its predominantly black cast and mix of rhythm and blues, Motown nostalgia, distinctive characters and showbiz glitter. Of the original Dreamgirls cast, only Loretta Devine has a cameo in the movie.

Holliday's performance made her the toast of the town. But behind the curtain, the singer from Houston was reportedly difficult, deeply unhappy and troubled.

Holliday finds it difficult to look back on her "big girl" days. She lives in Harlem and admits she doesn't go out much.

She is a ferocious reader of newspapers and magazines, loves courtroom shows on TV and watching movies. Holliday handles her own career - no agent, no publicist, no manager.

Two days after the Dreamgirls premiere, she placed an ad in Billboard and other trade publications saying she was available for bookings as the original "Dreamgirl."

"Just give me the microphone," she said with a lift in her voice.

Greg Braxton writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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