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, and her expression, all closed eyes and open mouth, was of a performer possessed, exorcising the anguish deep inside her.
The overflow 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. Opening her eyes to see the standing ovation, Holliday beamed, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you” in a humble, almost sheepish voice.
She had agreed to the short, no-frills gig last Tuesday as a favor for Lewis Flinn and Steven Slater, two Broadway songwriters testing out some 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 feels as if she is being swept aside.
“The timing of me singing those words came just at the right moment,” Holliday said, relaxing after the show in one of her favorite haunts, a French restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. “I needed to be singing a song of encouragement right now, I need those words myself.... 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 highly anticipated $75-million movie musical “Dreamgirls,” opening Friday in limited release before going wide 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 African Americans -- largely on the then-massive shoulders of Holliday.
To critics, audiences and stars such as Barbra Streisand, Holliday’s portrayal of Effie White, who is unceremoniously 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 only 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 effectively wiped out by the filmmakers, presumably in the relentless drive to keep the spotlight focused on the movie’s stars and propel “Dreamgirls” to Oscar gold.
Paramount and DreamWorks declined to address why the most recognizable link to “Dreamgirls’ ” honored past appears to be passed over. Holliday said she was particularly heartbroken when friends told her that it is her version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the show’s trademark song, that plays in one of the film’s trailers. In other words, her voice is being used to sell a production that had 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, those around her and the world.
“Why is it necessary for them to wipe out my existence in order for them to have their success?” Holliday said. “It’s scary that they can be so cruel. I know it’s business, but why do they have to go to this extreme? I’m a human being. I need to work too. Why do I have to die to make them a winner?”
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 clinical 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 if the weight loss affected the power of her instrument: “It didn’t. The voice has never failed me. It’s always been there.”
And although “Dreamgirls” has not had a major stage production for more than 20 years, Holliday said she had been the only one keeping the torch burning, performing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” at the private parties, corporate dates and engagements at gay nightclubs that have been her key source of income.
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.
Wrote New York Post columnist Liz Smith: “Life is imitating art now. Jennifer Holliday, who was so incredible onstage in ‘Dreamgirls’ as the original Effie, has incurred the wrath of Paramount for being uncooperative and not helpful in publicizing the movie. Word came down to omit any photo of her from the publicity for the movie version. ‘Effie’ -- being pushed aside again and privately singing ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.’ ”
Cooperation has nothing to do with it, Holliday says.
She maintains she was never approached about the movie or doing publicity (“The only thing they asked for was permission to use five photos of me for the program and the coffee-table book,” which she agreed to.)
She also says she was “uninvited” to the film’s premiere here last week at the Ziegfeld Theatre. The picture-filled program for the roadshow engagement at the ArcLight Theatre starting Friday has no photos of her, and she merits only one sentence.
Representatives for the studios said they offered to host a private screening for her, which she declined.
After weeks of suffering privately with the constant “Dreamgirls” onslaught -- particularly the raves surrounding the other Jennifer -- she said the final crushing blow came the night before her Ars Nova stint when she watched Hudson on “Entertainment Tonight” as Holliday’s version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the original cast recording played during the segment.
“When I saw that, I just gave up,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is a hopeless situation. I am being canceled out as an artist.’ ”
Sheryl Lee Ralph, who originated the role of Deena Jones, the lead singer of the Dreams who replaces Effie, says she has also been shut out of the “Dreamgirls” blitz (Knowles plays Deena in the film). Of the original “Dreamgirls” cast, only Loretta Devine has a cameo in the movie.
“For us to be so much a part of theatrical history and then to be treated like we did nothing is heartbreaking,” said Ralph, who has appeared in several TV series and is now touring the country in her one-woman show, “Sometimes I Cry,” about women suffering with HIV/AIDS. “I don’t take offense. It’s just show business, baby. I wish them every success.”
The reasons behind the snubs remain unclear. The studio has taken a “no comment” position on Holliday. The only clues lie in the past.
“Dreamgirls” was a phenomenon when it premiered Dec. 20, 1981, on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre. Michael Bennett, its director and choreographer, was already a sensation with “A Chorus Line.”
The show eventually 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, “Dreamgirls” was also a groundbreaking touchstone for African Americans.
Holliday’s performance made her the toast of the town. But behind the curtain, the young gospel singer from Houston was reportedly difficult, deeply unhappy and troubled. The demanding schedule left little time for a social life, and she drowned her loneliness in food, which “was my friend, my companion, my lover.”
Her diet consisted mainly of fried chicken and liters of Coke. Her size ballooned. She fought with the late Bennett.
Even now, Holliday finds it difficult to look back on her “big girl” days, refusing to view videos of her performances that have drawn renewed attention on YouTube.com. She lives in Harlem and admits she is a bit of a recluse -- she doesn’t go out much, doesn’t have a cellphone, doesn’t do e-mail.
She is a ferocious reader of newspapers and magazines, loves courtroom shows on TV and watching movies -- primarily musicals -- until the sun comes up (“I am definitely not a morning person”). Holliday handles her own career -- no agent, no publicist, no manager.
She knows that the “Dreamgirls” avalanche is just starting, and she will not be able to ignore it. She was horrified when “Access Hollywood” offered to take her to the New York premiere: “What did they expect me to do there?”
She has turned down most interviews, saying she wants to see the movie first before discussing it further. Still, she hopes to take advantage of the attention around “Dreamgirls.” So far it hasn’t been easy.
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.” She said that she wished she were singing somewhere on New Year’s Eve.
“Usually I’m somewhere, but now it looks like I’m going to be home,” she said.
But she is confident that when people realize that she still has “it,” things will work out.
“Just give me the microphone,” she said with a lift in her voice.
Or, as she proclaims in the song that has come to define her life: “I’m staying. I’m staying. And you -- and you -- and you -- you’re going to love me.”