Tom Eyen penned a play called The Dirtiest Show In Town and, in 1975, he adapted it as a musical with Henry Krieger supplying the music. In the show, Nell Carter delivered a song called “Can You See Me?” which inspired Eyen and Krieger to work on an original show. Eyen wanted to show the world through the eyes of back-up singers and Krieger wanted to do a show using black characters.
Project #9 (as it was titled in its planning stages) was originally conceived for Nell Carter, Marion Ramsey and Leata Galloway. The show was about three women with very different personalities (the beautiful one, the difficult one, and the funny one) who were roommates and friends in the early 70s.
They did a workshop for Joe Papp at the Public Theatre with Nell Carter, Loretta Devine, and Sheryl Lee Ralph. Papp saw possibilities, but Nell Carter went to Los Angeles in 1978 for a role on Ryan’s Hope. Papp urged the creative team to wait for her to return.
The project was shelved for a year. Then, Robin Wagner (who had worked with Eyen on Rachael Lily Rosenbloom) mentioned Eyen to Michael Bennett. Bennett and Wagner were searching for a director for a workshop of a musical called Battle Of The Giants, which they were co-producing at 890 Broadway. Instead of working on Battle Of The Giants, however, Eyen showed Bennett, Wagner, and Bob Avian the material that was being formed into Project #9.
Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, and Ramona Brooks performed the material. The show had taken a more solid form. It was now about three girls who were childhood friends and each found fame and fortune in their own right. Krieger pointed out, “At this point, there was never a mention of the group called the Supremes, although people don’t want to believe that.”
Avian was interested in the project but Bennett was leery. Without a solid script, it would be difficult to do a workshop and Eyen was having difficulty with the script. Bennett agreed to produce a workshop (at this point, Bennett was interested in producing shows rather than staging them).
MICHAEL BENNETT WORKSHOP
In the summer of 1980, the first workshop at 890 was directed by Tom Eyen. Bennett hired Michael Peters as choreographer. Peters had become a favorite of Bennett's after choreographing Comin' Uptown in 1979. The show was now titled Big Dreams.
Eyen and Krieger cast it themselves. In the cast were Sheryl Lee Ralph, Loretta Devine, Ramona Brooks, Ben Harney, Obba Babatundé, and two performers from the cast of Your Arm's Too Short To Box With God, Cleavant Derricks and Jennifer Holliday.
The first act began to take shape, although according to Avian, it was very different from the final version. "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" was added during this time.
There was another workshop soon after. However, this time Jennifer Holliday was no longer part of the project. “I left during the first workshop. I was working at night and doing the workshop all day. I thought the material was corny, and that the workshop was going on too long,” Holliday later explained. Jennifer Lewis played Effie in the second workshop.
With the first act completed, the second workshop roughed out the second act. Effie, now no longer part of the group, became a nurse for a wise-cracking Jewish woman played by Estelle Getty.
After the second workshop, Bennett still wasn’t happy with the material. There was still no story line. It was a collection of disconnected scenes and episodes that somewhat related to each other. Drastic measures needed to be taken.
It was during the second workshop that Wagner, lighting designer Tharon Musser, and costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge were brought in to look at the material. Bennett asked them if they wanted to do the show. They all agreed, if he were to direct. Bennett assumed the direction. Eyen was not unhappy with the arrangement which allowed him more time to write.
The third workshop happened during January 1981. Cheryl Barnes was cast as Effie and the title was changed from Big Dreams to Dreamgirls. However, without the tension created by the presence of Jennifer Holliday, Eyen was unable to write the material in the tone that he wanted.
Bennett was also unhappy with the progress. He didn’t feel that the cast was responding to him or that he had a focus. During the workshop, he informed the writers that after the workshop the show was theirs to do with as they chose. After a run-through, Bennett agreed that the show was in good shape, but that he had done what he could with it.
After much discussion and convincing, Bennett agreed to a fourth workshop. However, he would only continue if the plot and book were the focus of the next one.
The fourth workshop did not occur in a rehearsal hall. Krieger accompanied on the piano and the cast and creative team sat around a large table. Bennett and Eyen story-boarded the plot and they methodically constructed the book.
Bennett agreed to rehire Jennifer Holliday for the fourth workshop. Eyen and Krieger had written the show with her mind. After writing “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” in the first workshop, they were never happy with anyone else. Bennett didn’t think that Holliday was right for the role. He couldn’t envision a diva like that having a relationship with Ben Harney.
However, when she returned, she found that the focus of the show had shifted from Effie to Deena. Effie didn’t even appear in the second act, she was only mentioned. “That’s when the first big fight between Michael and myself occurred,” recalled Holliday. “While they had not originally said that Effie would be the star, they had promised that we would have equal parts, and that was no longer the case.”
When Bennett decided to drop a song called “Faith In Myself,” Holliday quit. It was two days before the material was to presented to David Geffen, Metromedia, ABC Entertainment, and the Shuberts (who Bennett hoped would finance the production). Reed to play Effie. The angels were impressed and put up $3.5 million to produce the show.
However, after the presentation, even Bennett agreed that they had to get Holliday back. Bennett called her after several weeks and they talked. Holliday was no longer interested in stage work and had turned her focus to recording. After some persuasion, Bennett got her to fly to New York and meet with him. They discussed her problems with the show and he agreed to build up Effie’s role in the second act and redesign her costumes (which were intended to make her look homely). Feeling that she could trust him, she agreed to continue with the show.
Dreamgirls opened at Boston’s Shubert Theatre in November, 1981. The first performance was called off due to one of the leading ladies losing her voice (most likely Jennifer Holliday). The show underwent only minor changes out of town and critical and audience reception was favorable. The only drastic change that happened in Boston was a reorchestration of the score by Harold Wheeler.
A lot of dialogue was cut. The “Party, Party” sequence was substantially shortened and rewritten. Effie’s interaction with Curtis while he is on the phone with the Miami hotel manager was part of that song and each character had more to say during the number. In the second act, the press conference was longer with Deena complaining about Michelle flirting with the men in the audience. C.C. was not Michelle’s love interest; a character named Wayne was and they shared a duet called “I Found You.” “One Night Only” was not in the show; the song in that spot was called “Gonna Be My Time” and was a more authentic disco number.