Broadway meets Reality Television

As an American Idol fan, I have been very pleased to see Jennifer Hudson get such wide-spread acclaim for her performance in Dreamgirls. Hudson got bumped prematurely from the Idol competition during the season which I document in Convergence Culture and it is delightful to see her get a second chance at success and really knock the ball out of the park. Beyonce’s performance in the film seems surprisingly subdued while Hudson gets all of the showstopping moments (or at least all of the ones not commanded by Eddie Murphy!) And of course, now both Hudson and Murphy have walked away with Golden Globes and seem destined to be “players” in the Oscar race.

I was curious, however, to see how her performance was being perceived by perhaps the most exacting fan audience for this particular film — the community of enthusiasts of Broadway shows, many of whom have firm memories of the way this same role was handled by another Jennifer, Ms. Holliday, who won a Tony for playing Effie in the original stage production. So, I asked my friend and longtime collaborator, Alex Chisholm, himself a seasoned First Nighter, to suggest some places where I might get a taste of Ms. Hudson’s reception. He directed me to the discussion over at Broadway World, a leading forum for fans of the American musical theater. The verdict is definitely split — perhaps along generational lines — with many of the younger fans knowing Holliday’s performance only through the soundtrack album or glympses captured on the Tony Award show rather than from first hand experience. Here are just a few of the more thoughtful posts on this issue:

Holliday’s voice barrels rapidly up and down the notes in AIATY in such a way that that I get a sense that she’s truly feeling something powerful and emotional course through her body while she’s singing. I find her singing on all of the other songs to be quite stirring also.

While Hudson’s voice is astounding to me, she comes off more like she’s decided how she wants to sing the song from the start and that’s also how her singing on most of the soundtrack feels to me. However, I’m not exactly sure whose vocals I prefer. I love the way Hudson sings “that would be just fine” in I Am Changing.

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I do not think that Jennifer Holliday was a very good actress and soley won the tony for her amazing singing in the part. Hudson, on the other hand, blew me away as a first time actress and her rendition of the songs, I felt, were more emotionally charged and controled.

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How can you say that Hudson’s a good actor. Don’t get me wrong I loved the movie and her performance of the song but her acting was nothing special. Now, I’ve only seen Holiday’s Tony performance and I think her acting is a little crazy to but her overacting works on stage Hudsons lack of acting isn’t good for film.

Now as for the song itselfs, I have to say Hudson was amazing and killed it, but Holliday destroyed it. Holiday’s version is clearly better in my opinion and I will always consider it her song.

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I saw Dreamgirls on broadwy with Holliday and just loved the whole thing. It was a dream for me. I was 10 and it was like this is what my life is all about. She will always be my dreamgirl.

BUT… Jennifer held her own. In many ways, it is different. Maybe not vocally as they both belt out a storm and take full control of it but with Holliday, there is a desperation in her voice, perhaps a I have ALWAYS been in control and she ain’t going to take it lying down. Hudson’s is more of a mental breakdown.. the hysterical kind..

I loved them both.

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Holliday was a force of nature on stage. I would venture to say her sheer power and vocal energy can never be topped. She can’t even get to that level herself anymore. She was 21 back then, and heavier, and both helped her to explode with the unmatchable excitement of “And I’m Tellin’ You.” It was as if she was self-destructing in front of you. Tearing out her voice like that, every time. It worked in a HUGE way, but it also took its toll on her.

Hudson is fantastic on that song too, but she doesn’t reach Holliday’s power. Close! But no cigar. She doesn’t push off the deep end into self-destruction.

However, Hudson gets my vote OVERALL, because her acting is much better than Holliday’s ever was. Later in Holliday’s run you even got the sense that she was almost “marking” the show to save herself for “And I’m Telling You” and “I Am Changing.” She kinda walked through the rest of it, a bit. And it’s understandable. She was like an athlete pacing herself for the triple somersault.

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Hudson’s work is on film, and I don’t think she could do any better sustaining Effie on stage than Holliday did, plus she already can’t deliver the song with THAT much power (nobody can). She had multiple takes, and didn’t have to worry about pacing herself for the rest of the show. So I’m already “discounting” my choice…

But since I’m basing my ultimate decision on the impact of the entire performance, I’m picking Hudson (qualifiers and all).

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I saw Holliday in Dreamgirls back in 1982 for me (and most others who saw her) there’s really no comparison between the two performances — Holliday owns that role. She embodies Effie like no other and the passion, pain and sheer power she brought to her performance is unparalleled. She was a force of nature and her raw intensity was so emotionally overwhelming, I can recall literally shaking afterwards (several people around me were actually in tears). No performance by anyone I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen over 1000 shows) has had the same impact.

Hudson was fine — quite solid in fact — and gave the sort of very committed, but scaled down kind of performance that the screen demands. It’s an appropriately strong Effie, but not an overwhelming one, which works well for the film. But, out of the dozen or so Effies that I’ve seen (including about 5 during the original Broadway run, another two for the ’87 revival, and the others during the various national tours and regional productions), I’m not sure she’d even be in my top 5 — and again, I say that realizing that making comparisons between stage and film can be rather unfair.

Nevertheless, Hudson deserves all the accolades she has received and I, for one, would be happy for her if she ends up nabbing an Oscar for her performance. But, at the same time, I would never begin to compare her performance to Holliday’s which was the stuff of legend and in a different category altogether.

What surprised me is that there seems to be no real backlash here based on the fact that Hudson is known primarily as an American Idol contestant and is not a Broadway veteran. Chisholm notes that there has been so much crossover from American Idol to Broadway in recent years, including cast members on Rent (Frenchie Davis ), The Wedding Singer (Constantine Maroulis), Bombay Dreams ( Tamyra Gray), and Hairspray (Diana DeGarmo). Some have even gone so far as to cite A.I’s influence on the new production of A Chorus Line which is more a showcase for singers than dancers.

A more heated controversy about the relationship between reality television and the Broadway musical is brewing around NBC’s new series showing the casting process for a revival of Grease. Some Broadway fans have embraced the strategy, supporting anything which will get people into the theaters at a time when large scale musicals remain a highly risky proposition:

If anything, BROADWAY and the theater arts and those aspiring to be a part of that world will have weekly exposure to the United States. And, if it does well in the ratings, can be nothing but a positive thing. Hopefully it will inspire a new generation to embrace theater and the arts even more, and possibly stem the tide of diminishing Arts programs in schools and communities.

Others see a range of reasons for skepticism, each reflecting some of the tensions points which surround efforts to broaden the commercial appeal of the stage musical:

The reason for doing a revival is “usually” because someone has a new vision or something fresh to bring to an old show. But this revival is only being done to promote another reality TV show.

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The only problem with it I have is the fact that there are many Broadway actors/actresses who are “established” and been in the biz for years, worked hard, auditioned, Equity card holders ect. and this gives Joe and Jane Everyday a chance to slip in and take two primo, well know roles in a beloved classic as they bring it back to Broadway. Which in itself is all good: bring in new blood, find new Broadway talent, yes… But not American Idol style. It’s over done.

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They could have also picked something that would allow non-white people to actually participate in.

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Could they have picked a better show?

Something that’s NOT done every year around the country by high school?

Of course, one could argue that it is precisely because Grease is so familiar and because there is a generation of high school cast members fantasizing about repeating their roles on Broadway that it makes sense to use it as the platform for a reality television series. Grease represents the kind of show that many middle Americans want to see when they go to the Big Apple for the first time — they know the songs, they like the movie version, and they know they will be entertained.

Something that’s becoming clear is that when there are more opportunities for new talent

to emerge through both mass media properties on network television or online through

social spaces such as YouTube and MySpace (the new hit Spring Awakening turned to MySpace to find young performers who could sing and act) there is a greater chance that someone extremely talented and completely unknown one minute can get a lucky break and become something of an overnight sensation, whether on a large scale or within smaller communities that become devotees of a particular contestant. One doesn’t have to be the “understudy” who takes over for the star in 42nd Street or the wannabe actress who has to lie to get what she wants in Applause, which was inspired by the classic All About Eve. Rather, in this age of participatory culture, audiences exercise a louder voice in choosing whose name goes up in lights on the Great White Way or at the cineplex. In the end, we all get to play casting director and critic for a day.

Comments

  1. Thought this story today was appropriate to the thread.

  2. Alex Chisholm says:

    Here’s a new story on Fantasia joining The Color Purple:

    http://www.playbill.com/news/article/105931.html