One night, a chartered bus picked us up and drove to Century City, where a special surprise awaited us. As we pulled up in front of the Shubert Theatre, exclamations of “No way . . . No way!” rocketed through the bus. The marquee read: Dreamgirls. And it starred the original Broadway cast. As my eyes bugged and my mouth fell open, Jose asked me, “What’s Dreamgirls?” But even he got swept up in the excitement, quickly realizing that this was a very big deal. All the young Negroes on the bus, including some of the most old-moneyed, nose-in-the-air/stick-up-the-ass ninjas ever born, were jumping up and down in their seats.
It was the summer of 1983. I was between my junior and senior years in high school (Cass Tech, in Detroit; alumnae include the O.G. dreamgirl herself, Diana Ross) and was chosen to be part of a program to expose supposedly gifted minority students (read: black and Latino) to the world of business through college courses. The hope was that at least some of us would consider a business major once we went on to college. I was assigned to UCLA, and given a dorm at Rieber Hall and a roommate from Texas named Jose; he was so gifted he was already taking premed courses. By day, droning professors did their best to prove how unsexy and uninteresting the business major would be. When we didn’t have classes, we did the tourist thing: sightseeing in Chinatown, cavorting on Venice Beach, going to museums, eating in amazing restaurants. Corporate sponsors footed the entire bill.
By the time that bus dropped us off at the Shubert, Dreamgirls, its signature song (“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”) and its breakout star, Jennifer Holliday (who played the ill-fated Effie Melody White), were already legends to black folk, even — or especially — for those who don’t normally pay attention to the world of theater. To say that the Shubert Theatre show lived up to Dreamgirls’ hype and reputation would be an understatement: the choreography, the staging, the costumes, the singing and performances . . . amazing. And that night, after Jennifer belted her last note and the refashioned Dreams sashayed onstage to brush her aside, the crowd lost its collective mind. Black, white, gay, straight, young, old, men, women, expensive furs and faded dungarees, all leapt to their feet and roared an ovation that seemed to last forever. It was like a Southern Baptist revival meeting on meth, cubed. And just two rows in front of me, former Supreme Mary Wilson herself jumped up, tears streaming down her face, in full-on testifying mode. “That’s the truth!” she cried. “That’s exactly what happened!” Daaaaayyyum.
Last Saturday night, at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, the turnout for the opening weekend of the film Dreamgirls skewed very similar to the theater crowd of years before, but with a greater Latino and Asian presence than I recall at the Shubert. Middle-aged black couples, multiethnic homo brigades, L.A.-flavored Sex & the City posses, the dressed-up and the determinedly dressed-down. Gorgeous, vintage-style lobby cards and assorted props from the film greeted you as you walked to your seats. To justify the $25 admission, a limited edition, numbered poster and a glossy program were included in the ticket price. One guy tried to run a scam on the girl giving out the programs by handing his bounty off to a friend and then coming back to say he hadn’t gotten his poster and booklet. “Yes, you did, homeboy,” she told him, nonplused and two steps ahead of him. “I counted them out.” He shrugged and walked away.
As the audience filed in, the soundtrack to the film piped through the speakers. Many in the crowd sang along. An usher bopped his head to the music. As the lights dimmed and the overture began, the guy next to me splayed his fingers and conducted an imaginary orchestra with flowery hand movements. Light applause greeted the first images to splash across the screen. And the appearance of Jennifer Hudson’s face — she’s the new, if not quite improved, Effie — elicited fan-boy rapture. But this screening didn’t have the standing ovations and applause-after-every-musical-number that have been reported from the homo meccas of New York and San Francisco, where the film also opened. The response on this night was more measured, and more fitting for a film that is, in terms of character development, painfully underwritten and pandering, and that sags as often as it soars. But when Ms. Hudson ripped and roared through “And I Am Telling You . . . ,” the air crackled. You could feel people being pulled to the edge of their seats. It wasn’t quite a Southern Baptist–style communion, but it was palpably electric.
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Still, the film didn’t move me as the Shubert show did all those years ago, and here’s the irony: The film strains against itself to give a happy ending to this tale of greed, betrayal, and all-American dreams being realized and deferred. The theater version was darker — a glittering spectacle containing some brutal truths. I left the Shubert feeling moved and inspired. I left the Cinerama Dome wondering what’s for dinner.