Attention, Histriomastix readers: Today we have a special guest post from my awesomely informed and witty Time Out New York colleague Adam Feldman. Last night there was a theater-industry screening of the upcoming movie version of Dreamgirls. Adam was there (so was I) and here are his impressions. Not to give anything away but he's right, this movie is Mighty Entertaining. Adam?
Last night, at the Loews on 34th Street, the hype-hype-hoorayed Dreamgirls movie was shown to an invited crowd consisting of theater insider types. Liza Minnelli was there; Harvey Fierstein and Lypsinka were there; seemingly every young gay theater publicist in the city was there. (So were Bill Condon, who adapted and directed the film, and Henry Krieger, who wrote the music.) How much of a theater crowd was this, you may ask? The kind that applauds not just the ends of numbers, but their opening chords. The kind that doesn't clap for Beyoncé Knowles when she makes her first appearance onscreen, but does recognize and whoop for the radiant 2004 Tony winner Anika Noni Rose (and later, in a bit part, Ain't Misbehavin' veteran Ken Page).
The screening was a gesture of goodwill toward theater people, who feel validated by movie adaptations of plays (and especially by the recent renaissance of movie musicals), but are often bitterly disappointed by the films themselves. But Dreamgirls is one of the most theater-people-friendly movie adaptations of all time: Condon has clearly approached the project from the starting point of a deep attachment to Michael Bennett's beloved 1981 Broadway production.
Dedicated to Bennett, who died of AIDS in 1987, Dreamgirls comes on the heels of a major Broadway revival of the director-choreographer's other great success, A Chorus Line. (This has been the best year of Bennett's death.) And the film is fundamentally contiguous with the impulses behind Bennett's original staging, which imported movie techniques to the stage: The director kept Dreamgirls "in constant motion," wrote Frank Rich, "to perfect his special brand of cinematic stage effects (montage, dissolve, wipe)." Condon, conversely, brings an overtly theatrical sensibility to his film--especially in the framing, the transitions and the lighting‹which cannily eases the tension that inheres to the characters' "unrealistic" ability to occasionally sing their feelings, even when they're not onstage.
But Condon's most touching tribute to Bennett is in the way he has filmed the Song. The Song, of course, is "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going": a harrowing expression of desperate need. Original Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday's rendition of the Song at the end of the show's first act is legendary; and her massive version of it on the 1982 Tony Award telecast is--without hyperbole--one of the most astonishing performances ever shown on television. In the Dreamgirls movie, the nearly impossible task of following in Holliday's footsteps has fallen to young Jennifer Hudson.
So how is the Song? The Song is freaking fantastic. Not just because Hudson sings the hell out of it--which, make no mistake, she does--but because Condon has staged the number as an homage to Bennett, reproducing the original blocking with palpable reverence. (The camera angles often recall the way the number was filmed for the Tonys.) Although Bennett was known as a showman, it is a tribute to his dramatic sense that his nearly static but tremendously tense and economical staging of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" should be the number that survives and represents him in the film version of Dreamgirls.
The dance numbers have been reconceived, the girls are new. But the Song remains the same.