Composer's Musicals Hum With Fast-Moving Structure
Henry Krieger's 'Side Show' is on Broadway while 'Dreamgirls' tours
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Composer Henry Krieger got the thrill of his life earlier this year when he visited the lavishly restored Providence Performing Arts Center and saw the marquee announcing the revival of his 1981 smash "Dreamgirls."
At the same time, hundreds of miles away, a different cast was rehearsing for the opening of his newest venture, the Broadway musical "Side Show." It is the saga of Depression-era vaudeville stars and Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.
Mr. Krieger, in 16 years, had moved from dream girls to girls with dreams, and now, both would be on view at the same time.
Providence was the first stop on the 18-city tour of "Dreamgirls." The show is now being staged at the Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles through Dec. 21, and will be returning to Broadway next spring.
"Dreamgirls" traces the rocky journey to stardom for four young black women bent on a singing career in the heady days of Motown. Looking back on the period that led to the show's creation, Krieger says with a smile: "I didn't need to do much research into the music from that time because I came to the table with it in my being."
Born in Westchester County, N.Y., he observes, "I was ... in high school from 1960 to 1963, and the music that came over the radio was Etta James and Ben E. King, and the Drifters and the Chantels, and other names people don't know as well, like Walter Jackson. Really good songs."
Even today, the play is unusual for its fluid, fast-moving structure. "Dreamgirls" follows both the personal and professional milestones, the emotional peaks and valleys of the fictional group.
Director and choreographer Tony Stevens, responsible for the current production, says, "There is not one thing wasted in this show. Everything up there belongs. It's lean and trim."
Krieger attributes that element to how he, along with book writer and lyricist Tom Eyen and director-choreographer Michael Bennett, "kept refining it all the time." The recitatif, or sung-through nature of this revolutionary show, led the way for dozens of others to employ that daring style choice.
"My writing partner and I used to say, 'Let's write an aria for one of these characters.' And Michael Bennett was a master at integrating the various parts."
But despite six Tony Awards and a run of 1,522 performances, Krieger believes "Dreamgirls" was labeled a pop musical rather than a Broadway show.
"It did get placed in the category of the R&B idiom. No matter how much our society wants to evolve into a colorblind, prejudice-free society, that hadn't happened when 'Dreamgirls' came out. A lot of people who hold a certain definition of what theater and musical theater is thought we were 'pretending' to be theater but were really something else, like a concert or a black show."
He adds, "It was an American show, with an American pulse, and an American voice. You know, sometimes a piece doesn't get accepted for what it is until a decade or two have gone by."
Three weeks after the Providence showing of "Dreamgirls," Krieger settled into the lobby of another theater, the Richard Rodgers in New York, shortly after reviews proclaimed "Side Show" one of the season's hits. The musical, in the works for more than five years, has recently gained momentum at the box office.
The young leads in "Side Show" are introduced when they are part of a circus troupe, protected from the outside world by a domineering manager. Once a promoter takes an interest in them, opportunities arise for vaudeville song-and-dance routines. The real-life Hilton sisters appeared in two films, "Freaks" and "Chained for Life," but died in near poverty in 1969.
"It's our love of those girls, those two characters that we've given a musical life" that drove Krieger and his collaborators, writer Bill Russell and director-choreographer Robert Long- bottom, to stay the long course to Broadway.
Mr. Longbottom's viewing of "Chained for Life" launched the idea. "It was their outsider-ness," Krieger says. "And partly, [it was] what we learned about them from people who knew them - what beautiful people they were. They had a sense of humor. They were gracious. And they thought of themselves as 'in the theater,' as artists, and not freaks."
* After Los Angeles, the 'Dreamgirls' tour continues in the following cities: Hershey Park, Pa., Jan. 5-11; Baltimore, Jan. 13-18; Washington, Jan. 20-Feb. 15; Cleveland, Feb. 17-March 1; Detroit, March 3-22; Philadelphia, March 24-29; Grand Rapids, Mich., March 31-April 5; Tulsa, Okla., April 7-15; Buffalo, April 16-19; Rochester, N.Y., April 21-26; New York, no date confirmed.