It took 36 years to get Dreamgirls to London. Back in 1981, Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger’s musical was the toast of Broadway; a roaring success with a record number of Tony nominations to its name. In the end it was pipped to Best Musical by an unexpected rival: Maury Yeston’s Nine. That made it to London – not once, but twice. Dreamgirls never did – until now.
Loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Dreamgirls tells the story of a fictional three-piece girl group, The Dreamettes. It follows three black best friends from Chicago – larger-than-life lead singer Effie White, Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson – as they sing their way through the Sixties and Seventies to a soundtrack of R’n’B, soul and disco.
Performing songs written by Effie’s brother C.C., the Dreamettes enter a talent contest and, though unsuccessful, bag themselves a manager: the smooth-talking and savvy Curtis Taylor Junior.
His ambition pushes the band to the brink of success: first as backing singers for the James Brown-esque star Jimmy “Thunder” Early, then as an act in their own right. Renaming the trio The Dreams, Curtis reshapes them for the predominantly white music market, smoothing out their R’n’B sound into sugary pop and promoting attractive Deena to lead vocals ahead of the more talented Effie. It works, and hits follow, but, as Effie herself says, she’s no backing singer.
Glee-star Amber Riley won an Olivier Award in a role that needs a voice to match the show’s biggest and best-known number, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going – a bona fide showstopper that never fails to win Casey Nicholaw’s staging a pre-interval ovation.
But beneath the pop, there are politics – the spoils (in both senses) of assimilation. To succeed, black artists must make themselves palatable to white eyes and ears, at the cost of integrity and identity – or their soul. As Effie faces life after The Dreams – either manufactured success or a solo artist on her own terms – that’s her choice to make.