Heavy, steady rain couldn't dampen the spirits of DreamWorks and Paramount as they held their first (and most certainly not the last) official press event for Bill Condon's eagerly anticipated screen adaptation of the '80s Broadway sensation Dreamgirls. In the past year the SKG held a number of hype events for major releases well in advance of their release date: roughly half of Madagascar was screened two months prior to its official launch, and the first third of The Island was shown with unfinished effects (much to Michael Bay's vocal chagrin) at a red carpet premiere-like event a couple of months before the open. Considering a teaser for Dreamgirls hit screens in December a full month before a frame of film was even shot, it would figure that its corresponding event would be just as insanely in advance--a mere seven weeks into the shoot. So much mystery surrounded this set visit, as publicists instructed attendees to leave any plus-ones, cameras, and recording devices behind for this "non-coverage" event.
Although the invitation listed the location as the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, the main venue was a tent adjacent to the theatre. In the large (but slightly leaky) quarters were, in addition to food stations and a full-service bar, five exhibits/displays, each focusing on a different aspect of the production. Greeting guests upon entry was one devoted to the original Broadway production. On a monitor (with the sound turned to mute, which kind of defeated the purpose) played an electronic press kit featurette on the show and its legacy; the big highlight of this segment were clips from the 1982 Tony Awards, including excerpts of Jennifer Holliday's legendary recreation of the show-stopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" during the ceremony. That Holliday's performance as Effie White still resonates with the sound turned off resoundingly debunks arguments that Holliday's acting was all in her rafter-quaking voice. A second station was devoted to Sharen Davis's sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated costume designs. A few of the selections, from a suit worn by Curtis Taylor Jr. (played by Jamie Foxx in the film) and elaborate gowns donned by Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) to various wigs were on display, along with their respective design sketches and production photos (whatever ones were available, that is; given that principal photography is still ongoing, some outfits had yet to see action on the set). Also at this display was a comprehensive design sketch book detailing the multitude of costume changes in the film; I counted over 40 for the character of Deena alone. A less elaborate exhibit was devoted to the choreography by Fatima Robinson; storyboard sketches were on display, and one of those muted plasma screens showed an EPK segment that included bits from James "Thunder" Early's (Eddie Murphy) "I Meant You No Harm" and Deena, Lorrell, and Effie replacement Michelle Morris's (Sharon Leal) performance of "Hard to Say Goodbye, My Love"; as well as footage of Knowles, Hudson, and Rose in the rehearsal hall. More imagination went into the display devoted to the enduring music score by Henry Krieger. Another plasma screen and another EPK featurette--the muted sound here being especially frustrating as there was a lot of footage of the cast in the recording studio with production team The Underdogs--but it was accompanied with a number of actual props from the film: a poster for the Dreams' farewell concert tour, an album cover for Deena's "One Night Only" 12-inch single, and a drum set bearing James "Thunder" Early's name. The largest exhibit centered on John Myhre's elaborate set designs. Large scale dioramas for were on display, from large locations such as the service station setting of "Cadillac Car" to stage-set performance number designs, such as the one for "Steppin' to the Bad Side."
These exhibits alone were impressive, but leave it to the SKG to go the extra mile, as at each display (save the one on the original show) were the creative people involved: Davis at the costume display, Robinson at the choreography display, Krieger at the music display, Myhre at the set design display. Krieger composed four new songs for the film, with a handful of new lyricists, most notably Siedah Garrett (perhaps best known for "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" by Michael Jackson), taking the place of the late Tom Eyen. Purists take heart--he said that these new songs, while woven into the story proper, are in addition to the existing stage score, not supplanting any of the original numbers. He also noted that while Condon has added more spoken dialogue, there is still a lot of sung-through recitative (though not as much). This was confirmed by Robinson, who in addition to choreographing the elaborate set pieces and performances (with little to no reference to Michael Bennett's original stage work) also consulted on movement and blocking on the book numbers. Working on a movie musical is a dream come true for Robinson, a familiar name to MTV viewers since her auspicious debut with the John Singleton-directed video for Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time." She won the coveted Dreamgirls gig through a long audition process that culminated in creating a routine for the song "Steppin' to the Bad Side."
That number was actually the centerpiece for the entire event. After an hour of informal mingling between guests and crew, Condon took to a small stage at the head of the tent to give official on-stage introductions of Robinson; Krieger; Davis; Myhre; producer Laurence Mark; executive producer Patricia Whitcher; cinematographer Tobias Schliessler; editor Virginia Katz; and co-star Keith Robinson, who plays Effie's songwriter brother C.C. He then went on to set up what would be the only taste of actual cut together footage the entire night: a minute or so from the beginning of "Steppin' to the Bad Side," featuring Foxx, Robinson, and Hinton Battle (who plays Wayne). The insanely premature verdict based on this little snippet, which cuts off right when the song starts taking off (it only covered the first chorus and verse, ending at "make the songs we sing our own")? Foxx, Robinson, and Battle are in fine vocal and dance form, and The Underdogs have done a good job of giving Kreiger's music a more contemporary and "bigger for the movies" slant while staying true to the soulful, melodic vibe of what's on the page.
The latter came into clear view--or, rather, listen--as action finally shifted to the Orpheum Theatre proper, where guests were treated to a live take of the climax of the "Steppin'" number, in which the song is a stage performance by Jimmy and the Dreamettes. Murphy was not on hand for this take--doing the moves and lipsynching in his place was co-choreographer Aakomon "A.J." Jones--but all three Dreamettes were on hand. If this take is any indication, there will be many standout production numbers in the film. It's no exaggeration to call this teasing taste spectacular: from the red-and-white color scheme (the red mostly coming courtesy of the Dreamettes' lavishly sequined gowns and the white from the large troupe of backup dancers) to the light-tower-and-bridge set that vaguely echoes the original Broadway design to Robinson's creative moves, the atmosphere was nothing short of electric even with Murphy in absentia; one can only hope all of that energy is captured on celluloid. But all of the spectacle would mean nothing if the music were not up to snuff, and this fresh take on Krieger's tune is every bit as rousing and grandiose as the visual; Murphy upholds the legacy original Jimmy portrayer Cleavant Derricks well, and The Underdogs' new arrangement is classic, contemporary, and very cinematic. After that all-too-brief shot of adrenaline, Mark took to the stage and gave formal introductions to Knowles, Hudson, Rose, and Jones and brought out Foxx, who shared his enthusiasm and excitement over the project and mentioned that Murphy felt the same way, which is a rare thing these days--a nice, cheeky jab at Murphy's less-than-thrilling recent output.
It was then back to the tent for more drinks and food, and this time the cast followed. Knowles stuck around for a fairly short time, but she graciously exchanged greetings and pleasantries with guests. Her fellow Dreamettes were also rather cordial and gracious. Tony winner Rose deserves special credit for not blanching at my indirect reference to the infamous From Justin to Kelly ("Working with two former American Idol contestants, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson--how do they compare?"); beyond that though, her down-to-earth likability and honesty should ensure her even more stage and screen success, and she is currently looking for a project that will showcase her acting chops without singing. As overwhelming as the project appeared to the invited guests, it appears no one is more overwhelmed than the sweet and personable Hudson, who is about the direct opposite of her high-strung character of Effie. In talking briefly about her path toward winning the role (three auditions, the first of which did not involve singing) and the experience of filming thus far (mostly group numbers plus Effie's solo single "One Night Only"; Condon has wisely saved the iconic and demanding "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" until the end of the shoot), Hudson appeared no less than humbled and grateful but at the same time excited over and eager to deliver on this huge opportunity, which few doubt will send her rising star into supernova. Keith Robinson also hung out for a while, and like his on-screen sister the hard-working up-and-comer was also rather gracious and obviously grateful to be part of such a high-profile production. Following his work on the film, Robinson will resume work on his long-shelved (due to various acting commitments) debut album, which he hopes to have completed and in stores around the time Dreamgirls opens on December 22.
The good sport award of the night, however, goes to Foxx. That proviso that no recording devices were to be brought to the event? Ignored by just about the majority of everyone in attendance, save for goody-two-shoes sorts such as myself, and with the surprising lack of a security check, there was no stopping those armed with recorders from using them--and did they ever get a workout with Foxx, who scarcely had a moment in the tent without some sort of device shoved in front of his face. While this went against the whole casual mixer intent of the event, Foxx handled it like a pro, offering the asked-for soundbites, even if he often had to repeat some answers (namely, the bit about Murphy's excitement about the film, and how the film blends music and dramatic content in a powerful way). He was congratulated for his patience and professionalism with a special encore of that brief "Steppin'" snippet, which he loudly cheered, joking that he's the next Michael Jackson.
Upon exit of the tent, guests were given a numbered, limited edition black and white print of a stunning still of the three Dreamgirls, taken from behind as they gaze upon a stage from the backstage wings; this image was also on the front cover of the press kit distributed upon check-in. My guess is that the image is taken from the beginning from the film, right before they perform "Move (You're Stepping on My Heart)" at an Apollo Theatre talent contest.