Published in KPBS On Air Magazine November 1997
Does success mean sellout? Does ambition mean compromise? Do black artists have to dilute and sanitize their work to appeal to white audiences?
These and other musical questions form the foundation of “Dreamgirls”, one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1980s (last here in 1987), now on an 18-city national tour prior to a Broadway comeback next spring (Civic Theatre, Nov. 25-30).
The behind-the-scenes showbiz saga, which won six Tonys and two Grammys (the cast album is still a top seller), opens in the early 1960s, at the weekly talent contest in Harlem’s Apollo theater. We meet a cast of characters that we track through ten years of trial and triumph. Mostly, we follow the Dreamettes, three young, innocent, ambitious girls from a Chicago ghetto, who get renamed, reshaped and refashioned to cross over into the white music world and master the Motown sound (that pop/R&B conflation that changed mainstream music forever).
Filled with breathless plots and subplots, the show has almost 40 songs and virtually no dialogue; everything is through-sung in operatic recitative. It was considered a breakthrough musical, stunning, stirring, dazzling and brilliantly theatrical. As Newsweek’s Jack Kroll put it, “What stuns you is the staging — thunderously the best the American theater can muster at this moment. What stirs you is the impassioned intelligence… shrewd book and lyrics… varied and vivid score… metamorphic set design… wizardly lighting… luscious and witty costumes…”
The critics crowed about the spectacular creative team: genius director/choreographer Michael Bennett, playwright/librettist Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger, the only surviving member of this magically inventive trio. But the award-winning design team is alive and well and re-convened for this revival: Robin Wagner (sets), Theoni Aldredge (costumes) and Tharon Musser (lighting).
The show’s story parallels the ascension of the Supremes, where early on, the lead singer (Florence Ballard) was elbowed out by the manager (Berry Gordy). Here, it is Effie, considered too big and unappealing to go on with the group. Forced into separation from her friends and her dream, Effie sings the anguished, mega-watt, first-act show-stopper, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”
The role is so vocally demanding that it requires a permanent stand-by; eight shows a week is too draining for one singer. Wydetta Carter has played the role herself twice before (a total of about 500 performances), but on this national tour, she’s the Effie standby.
“It’s a given that I’ll go on sometime,” says the 35 year-old native of Erie, PA, who just came off the national tour of “How to Succeed”. “The pressure is really on me. Every time I go on, it’s new, because I don’t walk the stage every night. They don’t want to have to pull someone out of the ensemble to take over for a major lead. They want your full attention on that role.”
Carter doesn’t worry about jumping into that gut-wrenching, climactic song. “If you really put yourself into the whole show from the beginning, physically and emotionally, it builds up to that moment. Including the buildup of anger between the girls, it’s a good 11-12 minutes, pouring your heart out. You’ve been with the group so long, and now everyone is turning against you, so it seems. It’s all out of your control, and you lash out in your own frustration.”
She was never kicked out of a girl group; Carter has always sung with bands and in musical theater. But she brings another personal experience to her performance. In February 1995, the day before she was to audition for a major production of “Dreamgirls” in Chicago, she was hit by a car. Her leg was broken in two places, she had cracked ribs and a mild concussion, and she was out of commission for a year — first in a full-leg cast and then in rehabilitation. They weren’t sure she’d ever walk without a limp or physical limitation.
“I’d been tap dancing all my life,” she says. “I was one of those heavier people who can dance. It was a hardship, an eye-opener. I didn’t know what was ahead. There’s no musical theater any more where you can just stand still and sing. If I couldn’t dance, I couldn’t do theater. I know I have talent, but when your talent is thrown into jeopardy, it really humbles you. These are the things I pull from for that song. I know what it means to wonder if your career is done, if your life is over.”
A decade has passed since the last revival of “Dreamgirls”. “Every ten years,” says Carter, “people need to be reminded. About the black music industry and all that’s happened with this Motown sound. Music plays such a critical role in our lives.
“Each decade has a story to tell. In the sixties, it was such fun music, great rhythms and harmonies. But the black groups still couldn’t go through the front doors of the theaters or hotels. And the white artists were stealing their music… The problems of assimilating and compromising are still here, with the rappers, for example (though I’m not crazy about their message), and they’ll be here in the future. The youth of today are the people who are going to support our theater. And they need to see it all, all the great shows from the last thirty years, so they can understand the lifestyle changes and get the message.”
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.