Our Revealing Chat With Philly-Bound Singing Legend Jennifer Holliday
“I’m feeling really great these days,” Jennifer Holliday told me during a phone conversation this week. “My life is finally working now. It’s kind of like when Glinda told Dorothy that she always had the power to go home by clicking her heels. Girl, I’ve had those red shoes on for years!”
There’s no doubt Ms. Holliday has lived through a career of ups and downs. She was discovered in her church choir when she was 17 and soon after starred in the Broadway musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. A year later, the singing actress got her big break in 1982’s Dreamgirls by playing what many consider to be the definitive interpretation of Effie White, a role that, according to her, she didn’t even audition for (“They just came and got me,” she said). Her performance won her Tony, Drama Desk, and Grammy Awards, and the anthem “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” became all but hers.
But since then, Holliday had seemingly “vanished,” so to speak: Despite a number of R&B tracks in the mid-80s and early 90s, she hadn’t put out a full album in years. She struggled with intense battles of depression and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. So what would she have told that young Jennifer Holliday back in 1982, when she was being showered with acclaim for Dreamgirls?
“I would tell her to understand that show business is just that: a business,” she said. “The bottom line is money. There are a lot of things that I lost sleep over, and I didn’t realize that certain things are never going to change. I took a lot of things way too personally, and I didn’t understand the game. I recently told a young performer, ‘Please don’t give up; you have so much to offer.’ I gave up a few minutes too soon. You’ve got to play some of these games to get what you want out of life.”
The sweet part, however, is that, just like Effie White in Dreamgirls, Ms. Holliday is staging her own kind of comeback: In 2014, she released her first album in 23 years, titled The Song Is You, and she’s currently starring as Sophia in a mini-tour of the Broadway musical The Color Purple, which is headed to Philly later this month at the Merriam Theatre. The tour, which closes in Philadelphia and is the only East Coast engagement, has been a great experience for Holliday.
“It’s been nice,” she said. “I’ve been enjoying meeting new people, and the audiences coming to support the show give us so much love. So many people are fans of the movie and they just love the show.”
The new album, which is largely comprised of jazz songs, has been a unique experience for Holliday, and she even wrote several tracks on the record, including the soulful number “The One You Used To Be.”
“I like to write my own music, but I don’t have to write my own music to make it my own,” she said. “I’m quite happy being an interpreter of music, to take someone else’s music and make it mine.”
You can tell Holliday is passionate about music, something that has truly driven her life for years, and she has some very definitive opinions about where the industry has been and where it is going.
“The biggest challenge for up-and-coming artists is that no one cares if you can actually sing anymore,” she said. “We live in a mediocre society, and you don’t have to do your best. I was raised and cut from a different cloth where you gave everything, but people don’t do that today.”
However, on a positive note, Holliday claims she does see a change with several younger, independent artists who take their craft seriously and are interested in making responsible decisions about their voices. “I’m not worried about the future of music,” she said. “We’re in pretty good hands. The public is demanding a better quality. If you can’t sing live, people aren’t going to justify a few hundred dollars on a ticket anymore.”
Lucky for Jennifer Holliday, she can sing, and she’s been waiting for the right time to show the world, yet again, what kind of power she brings to the microphone and the stage. It almost seems like she was waiting for the right time, and, maybe 2015 is that magical year.
“For all of those years, I knew that if I got rediscovered, I couldn’t let my talent go to waste. I knew if I got re-discovered, I needed to be ready,” she said. “When opportunity meets preparation, that’s when the magic happens.”
The Color Purple plays the Merriam Theatre April 17 through the 19. For tickets and more information, click here.