Dreamgirls: What You Need to Know about the Broadway Show and Context

The music of the 1960s and early 1970s gave voice to a society in the throes of a revolution. When the sound of Motown began its saturation of the airwaves, it became the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement breaking its way through the sheen of superficial Americana.

Berry Gordy and Motown

In the movie “Dreamgirls,” Jamie Foxx plays a character inspired by Berry Gordy, Jr. A professional boxer and veteran of the Korean War, Gordie couldnt sing but he could play a little piano, had a great ear, and knew how to write a song. In the 1950s, he met an ambitious teenager named William Smokey Robinson.

With Gordy producing and Robinson writing and singing, they recorded the single Got a Job (an answer to the Silhouettes hit, Get a Job) for New Yorkbased End records. The song rose to No. 1 on the R&B charts, but when Gordy received a royalty check for $3.19, he realized he was on the wrong side of the music business.

In 1959, he created Motown Records with an $800 loan from his family. Smokey Robinson became vice president of the label. Gordy purchased a two-story house on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit and converted the garage and basement into the primitive Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio.

Gordy fastidiously scrutinized every new act he signed for wardrobe, makeup, wigs, choreography, and grooming no detail escaped him. Echoing Gordys philosophy, the companys first hit was Barrett Strongs Money (Thats What I Want), followed by the Miracles Shop Around. A year later, the Marvelettes scored the labels first No. 1 pop hit with Please Mr. Postman.
Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross were girls from the Brewster Projects in Detroit, barely out of high school when Gordy signed them in 1961. Overnight, the former Primettes (originally a quartet) became the Supremes. In 1964, Where Did Our Love Go became their first No. 1 smash, followed by eleven more No. 1 hits over the next five years. They performed on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show, and became an international sensation.

Berry Gordys gamble birthed 110 Top 10 hits between 1961 and 1971, from such icons as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Mary Wells, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Four Tops, and the Jackson Five. These artists and Gordy created the historic Motown Sound, a sound that defined an era and broke musical, racial, social, and national barriers. They charted the course of popular music and paved the way for future black artists to find success with mainstream audiences around the world.

Diana Ross

I remember being eight-years-old and begging my father to take my sisters and me to the Brooklyn Paramount theater to see Diana Ross and the Supremes, says writer-director Bill Condon. I was obsessed with them and other Motown groups at a very young age. I heard all of this amazing music in the context of the time this famous march in Detroit led by Marin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement, particularly a speech in 1963. All of this history gives a scale and context for the story of Dreamgirls. While ostensibly its about the music and the rise of this group, just beneath the surface it tells a very personal story of the struggle African-Americans faced in seeking an end to the kind of accepted bigotry of the era.

Origins of the Stage Musical

Dreamgirls began life as a musical called Big Dreams, written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger. The show was workshopped for Joseph Papp at the Public Theatre, with Nell Carter singing the role of Effie White. When Carter left to take the lead in the hit sitcom Gimme A Break, the project was shelved.

One year later, Eyen and Krieger brought ten songs from the workshop to producer Bob Avian and Michael Bennett, the director/choreographer whose status as a Broadway sensation had already been cemented by his magnum opus, A Chorus Line, which had earned him the Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, and two Drama Desk Awards. Krieger played the piano and sang the mens parts, and two performers from the workshop Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine sang the womens parts.

Michael Bennett

Bennett and Avian took the project on. Michael Peters was hired as co-choreographer, and the musical went through four workshops and numerous rewrites over the next eighteen months. David Geffen and the Shubert Organization joined Bennett and Avian as producers.
Jennifer Holliday, who would make Broadway history as Effie, was hired by Bennett when he realized that no one else could sing the showstopper And I Am Telling You Im Not Going as well as she could. Shortly before the premiere, the title was changed to Dreamgirls.
On December 20, 1981, Dreamgirls opened at the Imperial Theatre. The opening night cast included Holliday, Ralph, Devine, Ben Harney, Cleavant Derricks, and Obba Babatund.

Bennetts stature made it one of the most highly anticipated shows of the season, and it did not disappoint. Dreamgirls was an instant smash, earning acclaim from critics and nightly standing ovations from sold-out audiences. Venerated New York Times critic Frank Rich declared it Broadway historybeautiful and heartbreakinga show that strikes with the speed and heat of lightning, and Newsweeks Jack Kroll called it stunning and stirring.

Tony Nominations and Awards

In 1982, Dreamgirls was honored with a remarkable thirteen Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The show won six Tonys: Best Book of a Musical Tom Eyen; Outstanding Actor in a Musical Ben Harney; Outstanding Actress in a Musical Jennifer Holliday; Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical Cleavant Derricks; Outstanding Lighting Design Tharon Musser; and Outstanding Choreography Michael Bennett & Michael Peters.

Dreamgirls was also nominated for ten Drama Desk Awards, and won three. Bennetts Tony Award for his choreography would be his seventh and final honor from the American Theatre Wing; Dreamgirls was his final production before he succumbed to complications from AIDS on July 2, 1987. He was forty-four years old.

Dreamgirls ran on Broadway for nearly four years, thrilling audiences for 1,521 performances, before touring the United States and traveling to Paris and Japan. Productions have since been staged as far away as Berlin and Malaysia.

Now, twenty-five years after first bringing audiences to their feet, Dreamgirls finally arrives on the silver screen.