How Tony Winners Audra McDonald, Lillias White, and Heather Headley Came Together for 1 Night Only in Dreamgirls

Seth Rudetsky   How Tony Winners Audra McDonald, Lillias White, and Heather Headley Came Together for 1 Night Only in Dreamgirls
 
Audra McDonald, Lillias White, and Heather Headley
Audra McDonald, Lillias White, and Heather Headley

First of all, I have two Chita events coming up! On October 1, I’m hosting a salute to Chita (featuring some fabulous performers) at Carnegie Hall that will benefit Shane’s Inspiration, which builds accessible and inclusive playgrounds for kids of all abilities. Then on October 13, I’ll be doing two shows with Chita in Boston at the Huntington Stage!

So! I just found this amazing video all about my Dreamgirls concert from 2001 and I wanted to dedicate my column to it but I didn’t know if it was relevant. Then I remembered the concert was in September and I thought that was a good enough tie-in. Then I researched the date because I knew it was near the end of September and turns out it was literally today! September 24, 2001, was the concert! Perfect!

Anyhoo, I thought I’d give a little background and then post the video. My favorite type of musical theater songs have always been the ones that are uniquely musical theater and don’t exist anywhere else; scenes turned into songs. And the reason I say they are unique to musical theater and not pop/country/blues etc songs there is because in no other genre would multiple characters sing lines that would otherwise be spoken in a scene (except in opera, which is on the same continuum). That’s why I’m obsessed with this from Evita, this from A Little Night Music, and this from Merrily We Roll Along.

For that reason, I was obsessed with Dreamgirls because it has the amazing end of Act I fight scene. So much emotion, sassing of each other, high belting, and riffing! And it gets more and more exciting as it goes on. One of the reasons is due to Paul Gemingnani, who worked on the music directing side of Dreamgirls. He suggested to composer Henry Krieger that there should be modulations throughout the song to keep upping the excitement. Here’s the brilliant Tony Awards performance with the fight scene into “And I Am Telling You.” When you watch Tony Award winner Jennifer Holliday’s brilliant performance, just know that she was able to conjure that emotional depth and she was only 21! Unbelievable!

So one day in the mid-90s, I went to High Holiday services at Beth Simchat Torah, the gay/lesbian synagogue. Usually, synagogues charge admission for those services because it’s the few days a year when the majority of Jews feel they have to go to synagogue and therefore a great way to raise money for the entire year, but there was no charge for tickets. I was so impressed that I decided I wanted to do a benefit for Beth Simchat Torah. So, I got some pals together and decided I would highlight two gay/Jewish composers; David Friedman and Henry Krieger. David is currently represented by the award-winning Off-Broadway show Desperate Measures and at the time I knew him as the amazing composer/lyricist who wrote the song “Help Is On the Way” which has since become the theme song of The Easter Bonnet Competition.

Naturally, one of the songs I wanted to do was the Dreamgirls Fight Scene. Lillias White was in the middle of tech rehearsals for The Life (for which she wound up winning a Tony Award) but she told me she’d come over to Don’t Tell Mama right after her rehearsal ended. I had Natalie Belcon as Deena, LaTonya Holmes as Lorrell, Brenda Braxton as Deena, Billy Porter as Jimmy, Norm Lewis as Curtis and Jason Opsahl as CC and, holy cow, it sounded great! The moment that changed everything me was: Instead of popping off the high G on “For se-ven years I sung with you…” Lillias held the G and vibrato’d it. I was so completely freaked out/obsessed that I vowed I had to do Dreamgirls starring Lillias with a full orchestra. I knew the show wasn’t coming back to Broadway so I figured I’d have to put it together myself as a one night fundraiser. The Actors Fund had asked me do a one-night fundraiser the year before benefiting the Christopher Reeve Foundation, which gave me confidence that I still could conduct!

Here’s the wonderful Marin Mazzie that night doing her sassy version of “Ring Them Bells”!

So I went to Catherine Cooke and Tim Pinckney at the Actors Fund and told them about my idea of Lillias playing Effie and I also mentioned that I knew Audra McDonald would want to play Deena. They loved it and wondered if we could have three Tony winners as the three Dreams and suggested Heather Headley as Lorrell. I said yes and we started moving forward. Audra was pregnant but that wasn’t going to be problem. We set a date in the late fall of 2000 and a few months before, Audra called me and told me that the doctor told her that in order to save her pregnancy, she had to go on complete bed rest! We knew we couldn’t do the show from her bedroom so we postponed. We then picked another date: September 24, 2001. I knew who I wanted for the rest of my main cast: Billy Porter as Jimmy, Norm Lewis as Curtis, James Stovall as Marty, and Tamara Tunie as Michelle.

I had done Dreamgirls at the Candlewood Playhouse and I asked our director Danny Herman, to direct the concert, and Brenda Braxton, the original dance captain for Dreamgirls, came onboard to choreograph and co-direct! I picked an ensemble of amazing singers who were soon-to-be-stars like Orfeh, Shoshana Bean, and Sara Ramirez, while all the little solos went to Broadway celebs. For instance, the two back-up ladies for “Cadillac Car” were Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley, and the three record execs were Brad Oscar, Malcolm Gets, and Patrick Wilson! Thus followed tons of tiny details to get done, like my contractor pal Charley Gordon negotiating with Local 802 to get a reduced rate for the orchestra and Catherine Cooke and the Actors Fund getting sponsorships from companies like Mac and Target, and artistic things like working with a limited number of body mics and deciding who could share. We sold out the concert and then, 13 days before, the 9/11 attacks happened. Within a few days, we were back on track. Shaken, but back on track. When The Rosie O’Donnell Show came back on the air, there was a great appearance by Audra, Heather, and Lillias.

The night of the concert felt like a celebration…not only of the brilliance of the show but of being in New York and spreading love. When Darius DeHaas sang “Family” you could feel the extreme emotion in the theater. We wound up getting a record deal with Nonesuch records and it’s the first complete recording of the whole show! Here’s a little deconstruction:

Well, all this background info is so you can watch this video I put together for the cast party. There is so much amazing footage you will flip out!

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