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Q&A: Dreamgirls creatives

Published 13 October 2016

Yesterday we were lucky enough to get inside the rehearsal room of the eagerly awaited musical, Dreamgirls. Just under two weeks in, and we were truly blown away. Although we’d loved to have shared the experience with you, you are just going to see for yourself when the show opens – seriously, book tickets. It’s amazing!

But we didn’t leave empty handed. Cast member Joe Aaron Reid sat down with Dreamgirls producer Sonia Friedman, and director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, to talk about getting the show to London’s West End, working on the production, and what the show will look like when it opens.

Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in 1981, 35 years ago. From 35 years to now, how did you manage to get Dreamgirls here, finally?

Sonia: I first became aware of the musical in the mid-eighties, two, three years after it had opened. The great Carole Woods had been in Dreamgirls on Broadway and was here performing Blues In The Night. There was one night we were out having dinner and she started to sing it for me. I thought, ‘what on earth is this?’ it was extraordinary, this incredible music coming out across the dinner table. I went out and brought the album and completely fell in love with it.

At the time I was very involved in AIDS fundraising because it was absolutely the peak of the AIDS crisis in the world. And I was really young and audacious, and I picked up the phone and said ‘can I do Dreamgirls as a charity event in London, because the show’s never been here’ and whoever it was I spoke to laughed at me and said ‘not a chance, when Dreamgirls comes it’s going to come big in the West End, we’re not going to blow it on one night for a charity event, however important it was’. But I kept persisting and we ended up doing One Night Only in Leicester Haymarket and we got together, it was like a concert version. That was when a really privileged, small group of people – about 800 of us – heard and saw the musical. So it has actually been in Britain, for one night as a charity event in Leicester. I wasn’t a producer then, I was a stage manager at the National Theatre, and it obviously stayed with me.

When I started producing, it was almost the first call I made, saying ‘I’d love to do Dreamgirls’. And at that time, there were much more experienced producers than me trying to bring it over. And over the years many producers have tried and failed, and I think it was partly to do with the fact that Michael Bennet – the great director, choreographer, who created it – passed away, and so I think it didn’t find its natural, next home. I just kept persisting, and anybody who knows me knows that I don’t give up and I just kept trying to get the rights. I kept my ears to the ground, found out when the rights might be available; I tried so many times and failed. But now here we are!

What is the most thrilling thing for you having it be in the West End and what does it mean for the West End?

Sonia: I’m trying to think if there is a greater musical that has never been to the UK, it’s America, its Broadway’s great show and it’s never been here. And for those of you who don’t know it, you are in for the most extraordinary treat. If you love theatre, if you love music, if you love drama, if you love soul, if you love great acting, singing, dancing, this just has the lot. Its energy, its life, its vitality, it makes me cry, it makes me goose-bumpy, it’s everything.

And for people who do come and experience the show, tell us about the design of the show?

Sonia: We’ve got – horrific for all our producers in the room – 400 costumes, I mean they are beautiful but it’s like wow, I’ve never done a show where there are more costumes. 400 costumes, 100 wigs, the set is extraordinary by Tim, and Hugh doing the lighting. It’s going to be glamourous; it’s going to be so knock-out. Swarovski are here, and they are our sponsors and I don’t know how many crystals we are going to have, but it’s just going to be so spectacular.

And of course, there’s the band. Everything you’ve just seen is going to be backed by the most extraordinary band, which features how many horns? Eight horns! Big, big brass band.

Casey: To add to that, I don’t know if ya’ll saw Amber on the Graham Norton show but when I heard the band there I thought ‘wow that is so cool, wouldn’t that be great’ and it turns out that is our band!

Sonia: Graham said to me that day, he said ‘wouldn’t it be great if you were able to have that band in your show.’ I said ‘we are!’

Casey, Dreamgirls is a bit of a departure from shows that you’ve done in the recent, recent, past. Book Of Mormon, Something Rotten, you know very, very different. So what about Dreamgirls drew you to this?

Casey: Well, I mean, it has been my favourite show basically of all time, it is, from the minute I moved to New York, I saw it six times, had no money, went standing room, just was in awe. So it was, for me ‘what am I going to do tonight?’, ‘Oh let me count my coins and go see Dreamgirls again’ because it was $15 to go see it. I was just in love with it, in awe of it and always wanted to do it… And it was the night of the Olivier’s when Book Of Mormon was nominated and we were at rehearsals during the day and Sonia walked by me. She just said ‘I’ve just got the rights for Dreamgirls, are you interested?’ and my jaw just went… ‘WHAT’ so that was a really good day!

I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be happier, because I just love the show; it’s just always been one that gives me goose bumps. It’s like the thing Sonia said, you can’t explain it. It’s not only goose bumps; it just gets in your skin when you listen to it. You sort of heard that when Amber sang I Am Changing, it just gets in; that you just almost don’t know what to do with yourself, especially if you are already familiar with it and it’s something that you love.

We’ve got shows like The Voice UK, X-Factor. What would you say about this show, how do you think it will resonate with young artists who are seeking fame, or just trying to break into the industry?

Casey: I think it feels pretty current, actually more current than maybe it did like 20 years ago in a way, because of all these shows. And you know, a lot of kids graduating from college now are going ‘I want to be famous’. As opposed to ‘I have to go summer camp and clean the floors’. But, the thing about it to me that’s cool is it does have a lesson in it. That you get success, you get it early and you think it’s great, and then you almost don’t know what to do with yourself and sometimes relationships can be sacrificed.

Sonia: Just on the X-Factor and The Voice, just on a specific thing, I am hoping that people who tune into those shows, that they’ll come and see the show and understand that it’s not just about getting up and singing one song, it’s about being part of a company, it’s about a narrative, it’s about storytelling. The music that they sang like I’m Telling You, which obviously is now an iconic number for these TV shows, actually comes from something, comes from a show, there’s history and it comes from a great piece of musical theatre. So, hopefully it will introduce a whole audience to musical theatre as well. And, we’ve got Listen that was in the movie but wasn’t in the original production, in this version as well.

Lastly, for Casey, what are some of the moments or one moment that you think are really going to blow the audience away?

Casey: Well there is one, but I’m not going to tell you what it is. Honestly, there is one, but I’m not telling what it is.

Sonia: What I can say is, when Casey presented this moment to us, and I’m not going to say what it is, in the design presentation the whole room was blown away.

Thank you guys so much!

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