Dreamgirls, the longest running musical to open during the 1981-1982 Broadway season, was a triumph of staging for director and Tony-winning co-choreographer Michael Bennett, who kept it moving with a cinematic flow, aided by the imaginative work of scenic designer Robin Wagner and Tony-winning lighting designer Tharon Musser, who placed the action within an ever-shifting group of lighting towers that made for instant scene changes. Tony-winning librettist Tom Eyen's story concerned the upwardly mobile aspirations of African-Americans in the music business in the 1960s and early '70s; specifically, it was a fictionalized retelling of the rise and fall of the Supremes as a vehicle for examining the ways in which gritty R&B was smoothed into mainstream pop for crossover success at Motown Records. Although his treatment was heavy-handed, if anything Eyen softened the facts in his version. As had happened with the Supremes, one member of the group was shunted aside for another who was more photogenic. But Eyen's creation, Effie Melody White, was closer to Aretha Franklin than to her nominal model, Florence Ballard. And unlike Ballard, who died of a heart attack at 32 in 1976, Effie succeeded on her own. Meanwhile, in a wholly invented subplot, a James Brown-like character, James Thunder Early, also rebelled against homogenization, but with less happy results.
In addition to Bennett's dazzling staging, Dreamgirls had some powerful performances going for it, starting with that of Jennifer Holliday, who, as Effie, sang the show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," and also including Ben Harney, who played Curtis Taylor, Jr., the stand-in for Berry Gordy, Jr., and Cleavant Derricks, who played Early; all three won Tony Awards. If the score to Dreamgirls, with music by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Eyen, came in for belated attention after the production and the performances, that was because, while above average for Broadway, it was compromised by having to do too much. First, it had to compete credibly with the actual black pop and R&B music of the '60s as released by Motown, Atlantic, and other labels. Second, it had to express the themes of the show. So, for example, James Thunder Early had a song called "Fake Your Way to the Top," the lyrics for which expressed the show's criticism of show business, while Derricks was expected to sing it as though it were a regular R&B song. A greater problem was that, in order to maintain the pace of the show, Krieger and Eyen had to create a lot of recitative in which the characters delivered what was essentially dialogue set to music.
In his liner notes, Kevin Kelly comes up with excuses why most of that recitative and some songs by lesser acts have been excised for the cast recording. He needn't have bothered. The album is actually better for sticking with the actual songs for the most part. That discipline helped the disc become a considerable hit, especially considering how poorly cast albums were selling in the early '80s. It made both the pop and the black charts and went gold as "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" topped the black singles chart and went Top 40 pop on its way to winning Holliday a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. (Two other songs, Holliday's second-act showcase "I Am Changing" and "When I First Saw You," by Harney and Sheryl Lee Ralph, who played Diana Ross clone Deena Jones, also made the black singles chart, and the recording as a whole won the Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.) Listening to the Dreamgirls cast album is no substitute for seeing the show, but the songs do provide platforms for some outstanding performers, and they give a sense of the highlights of the plot. Just don't expect Motown's greatest hits.