Jennifer Holliday as Bessie Smith(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jennifer Holliday as Bessie Smith
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jennifer Holliday won a Tony Award for her legendary performance as Effie "Melody" White in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls. Her subsequent recording career has brought her two Grammy Awards, and she has recently become a presence on TV with her recurring role on Fox's Ally McBeal. Now, Holliday is returning to the stage for the first time in years as the star of Downhearted Blues--The Life and Music of Bessie Smith.

Presented for 10 performances only by The Illyria Theatre at the Chelsea Playhouse, and written by Holliday herself, Downhearted Blues is a one-act play with music about the life of one of the most influential singers in history, dubbed "Empress of the Blues." (The production also features Anslem Richardson in the role of Bessie Smith's companion, Richard Morgan, and David Ojalvo as record producer Frank Morgan.) During our telephone interview, Holliday was delighted to talk about this exciting new venture.

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TM: How did you become involved with Downhearted Blues?

JH: Mark Cortale, my producer, was working on another project about Bessie Smith, and they didn't go through with it. We were trying to figure out whether we should do something like "Jennifer Holliday Sings Bessie Smith." But Mark said, "It would be good if you could write something, because we don't just want to do a concert." I didn't set out to write a play; I set out to write an outline and to put in some songs I wanted to do. I started on Christmas Eve and, five days later, I had written a play. (laughs) We got a theater, the people from Mark's group [The Illyria Theatre] all pitched in, and now we're opening on Friday night!

TM: Did you know much about Bessie Smith before you began writing the show?

JH: Oh, yes. I have wanted to do something like this for over 15 years, since right after Dreamgirls. Initially, I was waiting on Michael Bennett to help me with it and, somewhere in the middle of all that time, I toured with a show on Mahalia Jackson called Sing, Mahalia, Sing! The Bessie Smith show was going to be "our thing"; Michael and I were going to do it together. But he became ill and subsequently died. [pauses] After that, I never really had a chance to find a property. A couple of people had been trying to make a movie about Bessie Smith, but it never came to light. I called Mark because I had read in Back Stage that he was involved in a Bessie Smith project with Edward Albee, and he and I just came together. This is the first play that I've ever written. Hopefully, if the public likes it and I can get a backer, we can develop it more. I only cover the last seven years of her life, before she was killed in the car accident. If I'm able to expand the piece, then I'll deal with her entire life.

TM: You have had an extraordinary recording career. Two compilation CDs of your greatest hits have been released recently. How does it feel to have "greatest hits" collections out at such a young age?

JH: (laughing) Well, I hope they're not trying to tell me I'm finished! That's the only thing I was worried about. The first one was in 1996 on Geffen; that one I did myself, because none of my work was out on CD and Geffen was deciding to sell to Universal. I wanted to make sure that those masters got out on a CD. Later, we were able to get some of the other ones reissued as well. When they released the second collection, I was like, "W-a-a-a-it a minute!" That one is also on Universal. I just hope they don't think I'm finished. Everyone wants to make me a legend, and I've got a lot more time left than everybody thinks. I have s-o-o-o much more left to give. The dance singles I've been doing are just independent deals but, fortunately, they've both done very well.

TM: Could you talk a little bit about your appearances on Rosie O'Donnell's show and on Ally McBeal?

JH: They were really two separate things that happened in the same year. David Kelly called me on his own about being on Ally McBeal around the same time that Rosie was calling me to be on her show. I'm actually going to do Rosie's show again on the 16th, right before she goes into Seussical. That will be fun and exciting.

TM: The first time you sang on her show, you actually seemed a little nervous, and I thought: "What does Jennifer Holliday have to be nervous about?"

JH: (laughing) I was nervous of Rosie, because she used to have a real different kind of act. I thought she was going to bring me on her show and then "read" me. I really did! I told her I didn't want any of those terrible jokes or anything.

TM: You didn't realize that she adored you?

JH: Well, she wanted me to be one of the first guests. And I was like, "I don't think so, because I don't know what kind of show you're going to do." She said it was a "clean" show, and I said "Yea-a-a-h!" Because, you know, she used to be a little salty. But she said she wasn't doing her nightclub act, so I said "okay." I kept waiting for her to drop the other shoe and read me!

TM: You were so wonderful on Ally McBeal. How did you like working in television?

JH: Well, television is different from theater, because you don't get a response till weeks or months later. In a show, you know that night whether or not you were good! There are long hours in TV, and you shoot out of sequence; it's a really different process. There's no comparison to what a live audience can give you, that's for sure. It's hard for me, being a singer and an actress, because I thrive on the energy from an audience. But I haven't done enough TV to know whether I would like to do more or not. The work I've done on Ally McBeal has been spread out, and the environment there is so wonderful. They treat you so well.

TM: It's very exciting that you're going to be back on stage, singing live.

JH: Thank you. Now, is this interview going to be on the internet?

TM: Yes, at TheaterMania.com.

JH: Rosie bought me a computer, but I still don't know how to work it. (laughs) Somebody said, "Jennifer, you have to learn how to work it just to pull up your own stuff!" So I'm going to learn.

TM: I can't let you go without asking you about Dreamgirls and Michael Bennett.

JH: Of course, you know it's going to be the 25th anniversary of the show this December.

TM: Have you heard any of the talk that someone was trying to reassemble the original cast for a benefit for either Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS or GMHC and call it One Night Only: Dreamgirls in Concert, in order to get a complete recording of the score?

JH: Well, no one has approached me--but that doesn't mean it isn't happening. Sometimes, I'm hard to find. It's a great idea, and it's still a possibility, since the anniversary isn't until December 21, 2001. I'm going to be at the theater doing my show now, so they'll know where to find me. I'm coming out of hiding!