Dreamgirls, which premiered on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre on December 20, 1981, was originally developed as a project for Broadway star Nell Carter. Playwright Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger first worked together on the 1975 musical version of Eyen’s play The Dirtiest Show in Town. Carter appeared in the musical, and her performance inspired Eyen and Krieger to craft a musical about Black back-up singers, which was originally called One Night Only and then given the working title of Project #9.Project #9 was workshopped for Joseph Papp; Nell Carter was joined at this time by Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine, who were to play her groupmates. The project was shelved after Carter departed to appear in the soap opera Ryan’s Hope in 1978.
A year later, Project #9 was brought back to the table, after catching the interest of Michael Bennett, then in the midst of his success with A Chorus Line. Ralph and Devine returned, and Bennett had Eyen, who was to direct, begin workshopping Big Dreams, as the musical was now known. Joining the cast at this time were Ben Harney, Obba Babatunde, Cleavant Derricks, and twenty-year-old gospel singer Jennifer Holliday as Carter’s replacement (after Carter accepted an offer from NBC to star in Gimme a Break). However, Holliday left the project during the workshopping phase, as she disliked the material and was upset that her character, Effie White, died at the conclusion of the first act. Eyen, Bennett, and Krieger continued to iron out the story and songs. Cheryl Gaines and Phyllis Hyman were both considered as replacements for Holliday.
After two mildly successful workshops which included Jenifer Lewis as Effie, Holliday returned to the project, now known as Dreamgirls. However, she found Effie’s role had been reduced significantly in favor of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Deena character, and Holliday eventually quit the project again. After acquiring funding from music industry mogul David Geffen and fellow co-financiers ABC Entertainment, Metromedia, and the Shubert family, Bennett called Holliday back and agreed to rewrite the show’s second act and build up her character
Dreamgirls finally opened on Broadway on December 20, 1981, and closed on August 11, 1985, after 1,521 performances. The production was directed by Michael Bennett, produced by Bennett, Bob Avian, Geffen Records, and The Shubert Organization, and choreographed by Bennett and Michael Peters. It starred Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones, Jennifer Holliday as Effie White, Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson, Ben Harney as Curtis Taylor, Jr., Cleavant Derricks as James “Thunder” Early, and Obba Babatundé as C. C. White. Dreamgirls proved to be a star-making vehicle for several of its performers, particularly Holliday, whose performance as Effie received significant praise.
(Phylicia Rashad of The Cosby Show fame (then known as Phylicia Ayers-Allen) was actually a member of the musical’s company. Rashad was also Sheryl Lee Ralph’s understudy; but when Ralph left the production, Rashad was not offered her role, and subsequently left the cast.)
Holliday’s recording of Effie’s solo “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was a #1 single on the Billboard R&B charts in 1982. For the Dreamgirls original cast recording, the producers decided to present the complex musical sequences as individual songs, cutting approximately half of the score. The cast recording won two Grammy awards, Best Musical Album and Best Vocal Performance for Jennifer Holliday’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”.
Bennett took Dreamgirls on an abbreviated national tour in 1983, with Jennifer Holliday remaining as Effie, with Larry Riley, Linda Leilani Brown, Arnetia Walker, Lawrence Clayton, and Cleavant Derricks’ twin brother Clinton Derricks-Carroll as her co-stars. Because of high costs, only three cities were played before the road production was dissolved. A second tour began in 1985, with Sharon Brown as Effie. By 1987, Lillias White, Jennifer Holliday’s original understudy, had taken over the role, and the tour ended with a Broadway revival at the Ambassador Theatre
Click below to watch footage from the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls in 1981: