FOR the last few years, Hollywood has become littered with the carcasses of Broadway sensations that died on the big screen. Remember "Rent"? "Phantom of the Opera"? "The Producers"?
Among the few exceptions are "Chicago" and now "Dreamgirls." The first was written by Bill Condon; the latter was written and directed by, that's right, Bill Condon.
A devotee of the genre, he's spent a lot of time trying to figure out which musicals can translate and which can't, and although he's loath to itemize any hard and fast rules, he does adhere to one general precept: Keep it moving. All songs have to drive the story forward.
"I don't think you can stop a movie [narrative] and, for the pure pleasure of having a song, ask the audience to push the pause button in their head," says Condon, 51, over a quick snack of calamari and edamame during a trek around the country screening and talking about "Dreamgirls."
Small and unpretentious, he's still giddy from the premiere in New York at which the audience stood up and clapped -- throughout the show -- as if it were live theater instead of a movie. And why shouldn't they? The movie, inspired by the real-life story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, is probably the first musical in 50 years to channel the extravagant spirit and smooth Technicolor glory of Vincente Minnelli -- creator of such iconic films as "An American in Paris" -- and yet it's harnessed to a real, and realistic showbiz story about the rise of an aspiring African American girl group, in which the talented but hefty singer Effie (Jennifer Hudson) gets shoved out of the spotlight by her lover and manager, Curtis (Jamie Foxx), to make way for Deena (Beyonce Knowles), the more attractive singer in the group who has broader crossover appeal.
"Some musicals don't live well within the confines of realism that movies give," says Condon, but because "Dreamgirls" was based on a real story, adding the scope and naturalistic details available in a movie "could add to the resonance of the show."
"The crucial thing is that 'Dreamgirls' on stage was renowned for its cinematic staging," he says, referring to Michael Bennett's legendary direction. "On film, paradoxically, the way to make it more cinematic was to make it more theatrical, to acknowledge that these are songs, and these are performances, and they happened in a theatrical context."
This incarnation of "Dreamgirls" began at a party when, in the wake of "Chicago's" Oscar-winning success, film producer Larry Mark approached Condon and asked him if he had any other musical fantasies. Condon mentioned "Dreamgirls," which he'd seen opening night in 1981 when he was a struggling horror writer living in New York. The rights were controlled by billionaire David Geffen, one of the producers of the original show, and a friend of Mark's. Within days, Condon found himself driving up to Geffen's famed Beverly Hills mansion to make his pitch. He wasn't particularly nervous, he says, because he thought it was merely "a shot in the dark."
Indeed, over the years, there'd been all sorts of previous incarnations of the movie attempted, from one in the late '80s conceived by Howard Ashman, the lyricist and producer of "The Little Mermaid" and potentially starring a young Whitney Houston, to one a decade later to be directed by Joel Schumacher and starring rocker Lauryn Hill as Deena. But Geffen warmed to Condon's vision of the musical set amid the backdrop of the civil rights movement, and when Alan Horn, chairman of Warner Bros. -- the studio that happened to have a stake in "Dreamgirls" -- called in the middle of lunch, Geffen persuaded him to sign off on it as well.
Four new songs
CONDON spent six months writing the show and worked with the original composer, Henry Krieger, the only member of the original creative team still alive. Condon wanted four new songs -- and had very specific ideas of what they should be. For "Patience," which Eddie Murphy sings with Anika Noni Rose in the film, Condon told Krieger he wanted a tune like Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."
Krieger seemed to have no problem slipping back into his own "Dreamgirls" groove. Condon recalls that when they were working on Effie's new song, "Love You I Do," Krieger called him one day and began to sing the song, "the exact song as we know it. I said, 'How do you just channel Effie after 25 years so effortlessly?' " Condon recalls. "He took a pause and said, 'There's something you have to understand, Bill, I am Effie.' "
When Condon and Mark met with Geffen to discuss casting, the first person they mentioned was Murphy, whom they wanted to play the volatile, James Brown-type exuberant singer James "Thunder" Early. Murphy had almost never played a dramatic part, but did have some experience singing -- doing musical impersonations on "Saturday Night Live" and cutting a couple of records in the '80s.
Still, while most of the other actors had to audition for their roles, Condon, in a sense, auditioned Murphy at their first lunch. "The great thing that happened is that he said he'd seen 'Dreamgirls' three or four times. He knew the score. He referenced the songs. He said, 'I know it's in my range. I know I can sing it as well as Cleavant Derricks,' who played in the original. So hearing that from someone who's clearly not in the business of looking foolish, I trust that."
Also, unlike the other actors, Murphy didn't want to rehearse the dance steps because he "never wanted it to seem that this is a character who'd ever just do steps." And "coming from the world of stand-up and live performance, he wanted to keep it electric and new," Condon says. He says he mostly directed Murphy through carefully chosen haiku-like phrases like, " 'This number, 'Jimmy's Rap,' is a nervous breakdown on stage.' That was something he just went with."
The search for the right Effie
THE rest of the cast was quickly rounded out with Knowles as Deena, the perfectly molded singer-product who yearns to be more; and Foxx, the Berry Gordy record mogul willing to jettison anyone and anything in his quest to the top.
Finding the right Effie was the conundrum, as the character provides the emotional arc of the movie. As Geffen told the Wall Street Journal, Condon and Mark at first suggested "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino, an idea Geffen nixed.
They looked at more than 750 possible Effies. Twelve were ultimately screentested in full costume and makeup. At her first audition, Hudson, an "American Idol" finalist, was tentative, says Condon.
"There's this great talent and there's some part of her who hasn't caught up to it yet. She wanted this part desperately, but she'd been through that kind of rejection before. She was very nervous and didn't come off as she should have in that first run-through."
Then there was another, more promising, audition in New York, but it wasn't until Condon brought her out to L.A., worked with her along with the movie's musical director, and had her lighted, made-up and costumed properly, that she really "killed." She sang Effie's anthem, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going."
Condon recalls seeing Jennifer Holliday sing the song on stage: "You thought she was going to sing herself to death." Hudson's interpretation though, he says, is completely different. "I think the crucial thing is to understand the medium and what works in a movie. That song has to rip your guts out because it has to feel so real. I never wanted it to be just Jennifer showing off. The thing we decided is: This is going to be Jennifer Hudson's Effie, not your grandmother's Effie."