‘Dreamgirls’ still speaks to outsiders

“And I am telling you I’m not going,” wails Nate Fisher, one of the undertaker brothers on HBO’s critically lauded drama “Six Feet Under.” It’s part of a dream sequence, and Fisher is living a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, performing the signature “Dreamgirls” ballad as a guitar-heavy scorcher in front of a throng of screaming teenage girls.

For the character, who has a life-threatening brain condition, the song is a blaring denial of mortality. It’s also a sign of how “Dreamgirls” has endured for more than 20 years. 

Another sign? The “Dreamgirls” revival, starring original cast member Jennifer Holliday, which opens Friday as part of the National Black Arts Festival.

Holliday is certainly one of the reasons for continued interest in this musical chronicling the trials of three friends who form a Supremes-like singing group. Holliday’s roof-rattling performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the song her character sings when she’s booted from the act and rejected by her lover-manager, has inspired countless renditions. Whitney Houston often covers it in concert. And two contestants on the hit TV talent show “American Idol” have belted out the tune.

The song’s slow build and fiery climax make it ideal for flaunting vocal chops. And the sentiment resonates for anyone who has ever been rejected or felt unloved. “Stop all the rivers, / Push, strike and kill; / I’m not going to leave you, / There’s no way I will!” thunders Holliday on the original cast album.

But the appeal of “Dreamgirls” isn’t limited to this undeniably powerful song. The show, which ran on Broadway from 1981 to 1985, also has such a strong gay following that it serves as a marker of identity. A character lip-syncs its title song in the weepy AIDS film “Longtime Companion,” and references to the show abound in E. Lynn Harris’ many steamy novels of black bisexual life.

In some ways, “Dreamgirls” is the theatrical equivalent of “gaydar,” the semi-intuitive way in which gays and lesbians recognize one another. On a flashback episode of “Will & Grace,” a then-closeted Will denies that he’s gay. The always catty Jack replies, “This well-worn copy of the ‘Dreamgirls’ soundtrack begs to differ.”

Part of the reason “Dreamgirls” speaks so profoundly to gay men and other minority groups is that, at its heart, it is about the price of being different. As the story unfolds, the three young black women in the group must continually tone down their act in order to achieve mainstream success. This culminates with Holliday’s character being booted out of the threesome because her hefty shape doesn’t jibe with the group’s glamorous image and her bottom-heavy voice is too bluesy for the pop charts.

The show’s ultimate message is hopeful, offering one way to be different and successful, to maintain one’s roots and be accepted within the mainstream. But the overall tone of “Dreamgirls” is dark and cautionary. It warns that the desire to fit in can easily make a person abandon his or her values and sacrifice individuality.

This theme is what ultimately gives Holliday’s character her power. She embraces her differences in a way that makes her trademark tune nearly a civil rights rallying call. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is just a more individual way of saying “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

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