Heather Headley, Lillias White, and Audra McDonaldat the Dreamgirls press preview(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Heather Headley, Lillias White, and Audra McDonald
at the Dreamgirls press preview
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
"What's amazing about this benefit is that everybody is donating their time, including the orchestra--which, if you know anything about benefits, is really shocking! The sound people, the publicity department, everybody is working for free so that all the money raised can go to The Actors' Fund."

Thus speaks Seth Rudetsky, musical director/conductor of The Actors' Fund of America's 20th anniversary benefit concert performance of the Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen musical Dreamgirls. Slated for this Monday night at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street, the benefit has been virtually sold out for many weeks at prices ranging from $50 to $500 apiece; only a few tickets remain at the $1,000 and $2,500 levels (see below).

That the event has created a box-office frenzy is hardly surprising. Originally produced on Broadway in 1981, Dreamgirls is a fabulous pop opera about a 1960s-'70s era black female singing group named The Dreams--a group that happens to resemble The Supremes. ("But they're not The Supremes," Seth Rudetsky tongue-in-cheekily insists). The show received 13 Tony Award nominations but inexplicably lost the Best Musical trophy to Nine, which has since fallen into obscurity. Tonys did go to stars Jennifer Holliday and Ben Harney and to featured actor Cleavant Derricks, as well as to Tom Eyen for his book, Tharon Musser for her lighting, and Michael Bennett and Michael Peters for their co-choreography of the show. (Bennett was also nominated as director but lost to Tommy Tune for Nine.)

Any subsequent production of Dreamgirls plays in the shadow of that unforgettable original staging. Happily, the forces gathered for the Actors' Fund benefit are guaranteed to impress even those among us who are hard to impress. The cast is headed by three Tony-winning women: Heather Headley as Lorrell Robinson, Audra McDonald as Deena Jones (i.e., Diana Ross), and Lillias White as Effie Melody White. The men in their lives will be played by Billy Porter (James Thunder Early), Norm Lewis (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), and Darius de Haas (C.C. White). As Rudetsky puts it, "This is a really special event. Everyone is obsessed with Dreamgirls--no one more than me, by the way!--and the cast we've put together is literally perfect. The combination is unbelievable."

Those quoted in this article were interviewed during a press preview of a few numbers from the show. Rudetsky noted that the date of that event--August 14--was the birthday of Tom Eyen, who wrote the show's book and lyrics, "so we'd like to dedicate this preview to him." Eyen succumbed to AIDS, as did Bennett and Peters. Their deaths were especially devastating to Lillias White, who worked with the creators of Dreamgirls when she played Effie in a national tour that eventually brought the show back to Broadway for a limited engagement in 1987. Says White, "I'd like to think that the people connected with the show who are no longer here are surrounding us, hovering, watching, and saying, 'Yeah, go!' Dreamgirls is always worthy of another go-round. It takes the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride, and I think that's what people come to the theater for. They come to be touched and to be moved. This show does it all."

Modeled on the real-life Florence Ballard, the character of Effie in Dreamgirls is pushed aside in favor of the sleeker, more glamorous, "whiter"-sounding Deena in order to make The Dreams more palatable to mainstream America. Has White's portrayal of the role changed over the years? "I think my Effie is more mature now, because I'm more mature," she ventures, "but I'm also trying to keep her innocence. One interesting thing I've come to realize is that Effie is a little selfish and not totally honest, which is one reason why she's cast out of the group. She's not a total victim. That's one of the things I've discovered about the part from playing it so often."

White isn't the only member of the benefit concert cast who has a history with Dreamgirls. "I've done the show three times in regional theater," says Billy Porter. "I played C.C. in 1988, I think. I played James Thunder Early for the first time in 1990 and then, just last year, I did that part again in for the South Bay Civic Light Opera in L.A. and won an Ovation Award for it." Norm Lewis says he never saw the show on Broadway, "but I caught it on tour

Billy Porter and company performing ?Steppin? to the Bad Side?(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Billy Porter and company performing ?Steppin? to the Bad Side?
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
when I was in college in Florida. I was familiar with the CD, and I saw Jennifer Holliday and the others do numbers on TV. I was actually cast in a regional production of the show, but I had to turn it down because my father was ill at the time. This is a really exciting way to do the show. It's very high profile!"

Heather Headley also has a little Dreamgirls in her background. "I played Michelle [a late addition to The Dreams] in a regional production when I was still in college," she says. "I didn't see the show on Broadway because I was living in Trinidad; I didn't move here until 1989. I'll tell you, I would love to see this Actors' Fund concert! I really envy the audience because they'll get to see things that we can't. Dreamgirls is 20 years old, and it may be dated in some ways--the clothing, the style of music--but people are still so excited about it. Good shows never die. And with people like Lillias, Billy, Audra, and Mr. de Haas on that stage, it's going to be amazing. I'm just there for window dressing!"

The latest word is that the event will be recorded live in its entirety by Nonesuch for a November 20 target release on CD. This must come as great news to composer Henry Krieger--especially in view of the fact that Geffen Records' original Broadway cast recording of Dreamgirls, conceived and constructed in the manner of a pop album, contains only 47 minutes of music from a show that is almost through-sung. "That was David Geffen's wish, and we went along with it," says Krieger. When praised for the show's brilliant recitative (sung dialogue), almost all of which was excised from the Geffen recording, Krieger responds, "That's my specialty! I wouldn't call Dreamgirls an opera, but it's a similar form. Did you see Side Show? There's a lot of recit in that, too."

The composer is at a loss to explain why plans for a film version of Dreamgirls never came to fruition. "The politics of Hollywood are very difficult to comprehend," he understates. "What allows Hollywood movies to be made or not has a lot to do with money, the considerations that top movie executives have of each other, and things like that. As to exactly why Dreamgirls hasn't been filmed, I would be hazarding a guess that I'm really not up to snuff to give. But I do think it would make a great movie. Could it still happen? I suppose anything's possible."

Even if the time should come when we'll all be able to run down to the local video store and buy or rent Dreamgirls on DVD, live performances of this masterpiece will always be unmissable. So it's a real privilege to be given the opportunity to experience the show again while also supporting a very worthy cause. "I'll do anything I can to make sure that The Actors' Fund stays viable and is able to continue the work that they do, because they've helped me in the past," says Lillias White. "And I personally know people who are living at the Aurora [the Fund's residence for low-income groups including people with AIDS, located on West 57th Street in Manhattan]. They weren't doing so well before they moved in there, but now they're healthier, happier, and much more productive."

Premium tickets for the Dreamgirls benefit are still available at $2,500 and $1,000; they include admission to the cast party after the show, along with other goodies. For information, phone 212-221-7300, ext. 133.