We've all heard the phrase "a real show-stopper." It's a nice expression, and gives a good sense of a dynamic performance. However, I've seen two musicals in my life where a performer literally "stopped" the show, getting so much applause and cheers that wouldn't end, that the show actually could not go on and the entire production came to a halt.
One of those two was by Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls on Broadway, performing her iconic signature number, "And I am Telling You I am Not Going." And we have a clip of her performing that below, not as a solo performer, but live on stage with the cast.
(I was in town on a press junket, had a night off and went to the theater. The show was sold out, but a man offered to sell me a ticket. It cost too much, or so I thought, and I thought he was scalping me, so I started to leave. He offered it to me for less, and I took it. Only after purchasing the ticket did I see he was initially trying to sell it for the actual face value! Had I known that, I'd have bought it. I just didn't know what orchestra seats were going for on Broadway.)
Anyway, I'm glad I didn't get away and that I got to see the show, because Holliday's performance was every bit as great as the legend of it. Yes, I know that a later Jennifer -- Jennifer Hudson -- won a Supporting Actress Oscar in the movie, but for my taste, there was no comparison. She did a very nice job. But this is how it's done. In fairness, part of that is because of live theater as opposed to movies. Another part is that they changed the movie a bit, for the worse, I thought. But part is that this isn't just a terrific, Oscar-winning performance, it's a galvanizing, legend-making, Tony-winning performance.
The song isn't a sad, break-up song. It's a woman having an emotional breakdown on stage, live, in front of you. That's in part why in later years, Ms. Holliday got chided a bit when she'd perform the song on talk shows. It comes across as a bit overwrought as a solo "pop" song. But onstage, in context, it fits like a glove, and you sit there mesmerized. That's where its power is when done properly.
And Jennifer Holliday did it properly. That's the thing about it that literally stopped the show from continuing. What the audience saw, sitting in the theater, was a woman totally losing it, having her world crash down around her, and having everyone in her life walk away from her, including the man she thought had loved her. Her anguish and angst built and built, and then exploded -- and then somehow kept building. And then when she's left on stage only with the man she adores passionately, and he too turns to go, she grabs for him, holds on to his leg refusing to let ago, as he pulls her around the stage, trying to get away, and yet she keeps on singing. And finally he's able to break away, escapes, and she's left alone -- and keeps on singing and moaning, blind to reality, as if he's still there with her. She turns into almost a feral animal, stalking the stage alone, breaking down, insisting to the man who's no longer there with her that "I am telling you, you are not going." It's stunning, gasp-inducing moment, and it builds more for there, until finally, with nowhere else to go, it ends with a crescendo.
And the audience just exploded. Roaring. Standing,cheering,shouting, screaming. From the distance of time, I can't tell you how long it lasted, but it was easily five minutes, I think it lasted eight minutes, If you don't think that sounds like much, take out your watch and try clapping for 30 seconds. (Now, add cheering and roaring, and do it on your feet.) And again, remember, this was in the middle of a story that was going on -- well, it was until that moment when everything just came to a halt. Finally, the theater quieted down and returned to normal, and the show, at last, could go on.
And thing is -- what I suspect played in part to the reaction was the audience recognition of what they were witnessing, that she did this every night, live, with no opportunity to stop and ask to do another take, or 10 takes until she got it right. She got it right every night, and twice on matinees. It was quite remarkable.
And here is Jennifer Holliday doing just that. This clip below is her performance, pretty much in context, at the 1982 Tony Awards. It's not the full version -- no dragging around the stage, for instance -- but the whole segment is quite long, and with other material it runs over eight minutes. It's not the same as live, it can't be, but you'll get the real sense of how it was done, and what audiences experienced in the theater. (Even the Tony audience breaks into cheers -- three times, in fact, when she starts and twice near the end -- but then, it's borderline impossible not to.) The video quality isn't great, and at one point it even fizzles out for a couple seconds. But it's no matter, the performance comes through. Every twist of her body, every gulp for air, every tortured look on her face.
One other comparison thing. Jennifer Hudson got a lot of deserved attention for her weight loss after the movie, and became a spokesperson for Weight Watchers. If you've seen the first Jennifer today, Jennifer Holliday, she's a glamorous, svelte performer. If that's all you know of her, you'll be shocked to see her how she was back in 1982 when she won the Tony Award for Best Actress. She probably could have eaten two Jennifer Hudsons and had room left over for dessert and a snack.
Just for perspective, here is Jennifer Holliday today.
None of this is to disparage Jennifer Hudson. She did a very nice job, and is a good singer. But this is how it's done.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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