Big Is the Word for Dreamgirls: Major Problems, Then Huge Hit, and An Outsize Talent as Star

updated 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross were once street-corner singers from the slums of Detroit who climbed to the top of the charts as the Supremes—thanks to a Svengali named Berry Gordy and his Motown Records. In the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls, Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson and Effie Melody White rise from the Chicago ghetto (with help from a hard-driving manager) to become America's top black singing group—"the Dreams." Any relationship between Dreams and Supremes, insists director Michael (A Chorus Line) Bennett, is coincidental. Jennifer Holliday, 21, who plays Effie, stoutly demurs. "What other three girls could they possibly be?"

With her buxom figure and lusty voice, the outspoken Holliday steals Bennett's show, one of the most lavish ($3.5 million) ever produced on Broadway. Her heart-wrenching ballad And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, protesting her ouster from the Dreams, literally stops the first act (Florence Ballard was dropped by the Supremes and died in poverty at 32). "If the curtain didn't fall," wrote New York Times critic Frank Rich, "the audience would probably cheer Jennifer Holliday until dawn."

For Jennifer, that moment of triumph is bittersweet. Her soulful plea to stay in the group always leaves her drenched in sweat and her stomach knotted in pain; it also is a nightly reminder of her own backstage warfare with Bennett. The demanding director and Holliday clashed after she was invited to a workshop production of Dreamgirls during her much-applauded performance in Your Arms Too Short to Box With God. As rehearsals went on, Bennett began to criticize her acting. Holliday, in turn, complained that her part wasn't big enough. Finally, last April, four days before an important backers' audition, Bennett told her: "You're fired." "I quit," she retorted.

A month and a half later Michael reconsidered. "I knew no one else could sing that way," he admits. Over a series of conciliatory dinners, director and star were able to establish a working relationship. Bennett took her to Lena Home and Amadeus, the first serious drama Holliday had ever seen. He also sent her to old movies, especially Hollywood-style musicals. Gradually her acting improved.

Jennifer's first counselor was her schoolteacher mother, who encouraged her to sing in a church choir in their middle-class Houston neighborhood. (Holliday's father is a Baptist minister; her parents were divorced when she was a baby.) As a teenager, Jennifer sang gospel on local television while supplementing family funds (she has a half sister and a half brother) by working at fast-food counters and Sears, Roebuck. Holliday earned top grades, served as student council president in junior high school and considered becoming a lawyer. Then, at age 18, she successfully auditioned for the national company of Your Arms Too Short. She postponed her college plans and hit the road that led to Dreamgirls.

Holliday now has an agent, two managers (including the current Motown Productions president, Suzanne de Passe) and a record contract, but few airs. An aggressively informal dresser, she is given to jeans, sweat shirts and gold ballet slippers. She lives in a Manhattan studio apartment with her Pekingese, Coke (named after a favorite drink, not the powder).

"I have something that's universal," Jennifer acknowledges, "that is non-denominational and that has allowed me to go into all homes—Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, black and white. But someday I hope to do something that my people can really appreciate." Though Dreamgirls is a story about black entertainers, it is packaged for a general Broadway audience, she realizes. "It's not that blacks would not understand or enjoy it," says Holliday. "It's just that, at $40 a ticket, few of them can afford it."

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