Jennifer Holliday was only 19 – a real Broadway baby – when legendary director/choreographer Michael Bennett, the creator of A Chorus Line, saw her performing in Your Arms Are Too Short To Box With God, the show in which she made her Broadway debut. He invited her to participate in a workshop of a show, then known just as Project No 19, which turned out to be Dreamgirls. At that point the signature song And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going hadn’t been written. Agreeing to participate, Holliday created the role of Effie White and went on to play her in the original 1981 Broadway production, winning a Tony Award. Her cyclonic, heart-rending performance of And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Leaving is now iconic.

Jennifer Holliday. Photograph courtesy of Sydney Cabaret Festival

Since then, Holliday’s credits have ranged from playing Mama Morton in Chicago to Lisa Knowles in the television series Ally McBeal with Calista Flockhart. She has released five albums, and recorded with many artists including Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon and Michael Jackson. In 2016, she returned to Broadway when she took over the role of sexy cabaret singer Shug Avery from Jennifer Hudson in the Tony Award-winning revival of The Color Purple.

Holliday is about to make her Australian debut as the headline act in the inaugural Sydney Cabaret Festival, performing a concert of Broadway hits, jazz standards, originals and soulful pop at Sydney Town Hall on July 6 and 7. “Her show is just really fantastic, I can’t stress enough how brilliant she is in concert. She knocks your socks off. That voice is unbelievable and it’s not just ‘the song’ that everyone loves. Her other material, the Etta James stuff, the Aretha Franklin stuff that she sings, plus all the Broadway that she sings, is pretty amazing,” says Trevor Ashley, the Artistic Director of the Festival. Before hopping on a plane for Australia, Holliday spoke to Limelight.

This is going to be your Australian debut. How did you feel when the offer was made for you to perform in the Sydney Cabaret Festival?

I don’t know about the whole continent of Australia but I do know that in the Sydney area, and in some other places, I have a huge gay following. And I’ve gotten over the years lots of correspondence and support, and lots of love from there, so I’ve always wanted to visit. Plus [Australians] love music and theatre, I’ve always known that. Even before social media, people would always be saying they went to Australia, so I’ve always known it as a place that loves good quality music and theatre.

You sing a range of repertoire. What can we expect to hear from you in your show? Apparently you will sing some jazz songs and Broadway numbers?

Right, right. I did start in theatre so I’m a Broadway baby, but of course everyone mostly knows me for just Dreamgirls. Outside of that I’ve had a pretty successful recording career, not like a multi-million selling recording career, but definitely one that has allowed me to tour and do concerts. And then as I got older, I fell in love with a lot of the jazz standards, not only me, but a lot of people started going back and making albums of standards, you know Michael Bublé and the list goes on. People just delved back and I fell in love with it as well.

Will you sing some of your original songs too?

I might, I’m not sure. Sometimes it just depends on how I feel when I have a set show that I do everywhere, so it just depends. A lot of my own repertoire is R&B and unfortunately, when I was over there [for the launch of the Festival], I don’t think I really even saw any black people, not that other people don’t enjoy R&B, or rhythm or soul music, but I might not do that. I’m not the kind of artist that forces songs on an audience. If they’re my diehard fans and I know who the audience is then I will do a lot of my own repertoire, but it’s just kind of pointless if they don’t know all of your stuff.

In your show do you talk much about your experiences?

No, I basically just sing songs that I enjoy singing, and then I kind of tell some of my story. But it’s not like a Broadway show, or a one-woman show or anything like that. I don’t do scripted things or rehearsed things. I may talk about things but it may not be the same thing that I talk about on the next night. It’s not written out, it’s not directed. I like it to be real and to do things that I love and enjoy.

Famously you sang in church when you were growing up in Houston, Texas, and the next thing you were on Broadway. [Dancer Jamie Patterson who was touring in A Chorus Line spotted Holliday, set up an audition for her for Your Arms Are Too Short To Box With God on Broadway, bought her an airline ticket to New York, and she was hired on the day she auditioned.] How was that experience? It must’ve been quite extraordinary, so how did you cope?

Well, it was extraordinarily frightening because I was a young girl, you know 17, a teenager, and Texas is a large state, but still not as big as New York. It was going to the city of New York, and therefore I had a lot of things to learn at one time. Number one, to be introduced to theatre and learn how to interpret songs as part of a storyline. So I had to learn how to do that, and how to do eight shows a week. [I also had to learn how] to be in a city that I’ve never been in before, a different kind of city, fast life, night life, everything like that. And the third thing was to work with a lot of grown up people, I mean here I am a young girl so I had to grow up quick, but also use a lot of restraint from my home training, from my mother and everybody because otherwise I would’ve gotten involved in drugs and drinking and things like that.

Jennifer Holliday. Photograph courtesy of Sydney Cabaret Festival

Then Michael Bennett approaches you for a show that was still being developed. Did you know immediately that you wanted to be a part of that? 

He asked me and Cleavant Derricks, who played the James Brown character in the show. So we both decided we’d give it a try, so in the daytime we were  spending eight hours on developing our characters and developing the new show, and at nighttime, I did a show called Your Arms Are Too Short To Box With God on Broadway. It was a lot, but at the same time I was young, you have a different kind of energy and approach to life.

It must’ve been exciting to have been able to invest so much in developing the character of Effie?

Yeah, it was because, like I said, I had just gotten into theatre and to be able to create a character and watch it develop it into something way beyond yourself [was really exciting], and to also find yourself fighting for a character. Initially Effie was only supposed to be in the first act, and never to be seen again, so I fought for her to come back into the second act, and fought for a lot of changes. But like I said, I was just a teenager and did not know really what I was fighting. But when you’re young you do stuff and you don’t really have a lot of fear. Everybody kept saying to me “don’t talk to him like that, he’s Michael Bennett, the King of Broadway” and I was like, “well I don’t’ care, he’s wrong”. You know they say when you’re young, you’re not afraid to speak your mind. So back then, I was just really asking him if Effie could have a better chance at life. They had her going off on drugs and she was just going to disappear.

When they first gave you the song And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Leaving, did you think this was going to become an absolute classic?

No, and anybody in theatre who can tell a song is going to be classic, can’t really be telling the truth because that’s not how theatre works. You do theatre because you love it. You do it to develop something, a lot of great shows have ended up not being successes at all, a lot of the great jazz standards came out of Broadway musicals that flopped. So at this point, we’re just working to develop something that we think is good, and hope that it does develop into a Broadway show. There was no written guarantee, they gave none of us any guarantee that it was actually going to go anywhere, it was called a workshop, it didn’t have a schedule. And then when they decided they were going to go full steam ahead with it, they had what they called “out-of-town tryouts”. So we went to Boston, Massachusetts and we stayed there for three months working on the show and trying to finish the development of it. So at that time, there was six principals in the show, six stars, other than myself, and every day was a good show but there was no knowing that it would turn into something that would last 38 years from then.

Is it true that it was watching Barbra Streisand that led to you adding those extraordinary long notes in And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going?

The answer would be true, because in the workshop, only coming from one show in the theatre, Michael Bennett said I needed to learn some acting skills but he didn’t want to hire me an acting coach, he wanted to just take me on himself and to teach me, and to develop Effie without the interference of an outside coach. So he gave me all these tapes of every Barbra Streisand musical that she did, and he made me watch all of them. I had never heard of her before but I really just fell in love with some of the things that she was doing, especially how long she was holding those notes! I was like “how the heck are you doing it?” And I never had any voice lessons either, so I would practice holding that note, and I wouldn’t stop until I got it. So, I did steal from her, and then years later she flattered me when I was very honoured to sing on her behalf at the Oscars in 1984. She wasn’t nominated for director for Yentl so she protested. … Anyway, she called me, and she called Donna Summer to ask us to go sing on her behalf for the 1984 Oscars. So to me that was one of the greatest compliments that I have ever had, to have Miss Streisand call me and ask “go sing for me and my song”. It was just one of the greatest honours and thrills.  I did come to know her and admire her, and she had come to see the show many times and had given me a lot of encouragement, so I was really just glad. Even today, I look back and think “wow, one of the greatest voices in the entire planet, and in history, thinks that I have a great voice too!”

When they made the film of Dreamgirls, was it upsetting that they didn’t approach you to be a part of it in some way?

Well, I would have just loved to have been a part of it. I could’ve played the mother, I could’ve done anything. …They changed a lot of stuff [for the movie] that wasn’t in the play, so therefore they could’ve written me a part, so I was very disappointed. I understood the age difference and that they wanted someone younger [to play Effie], I understand that. But I didn’t understand not involving me at all.

Jennifer Holliday in The Color Purple. Photograph © Matthew Murphy

How was it then going back to Broadway in The Color Purple? And did you get to work with John Doyle on the role?

First of all, I had to audition for John Doyle, because he claimed he wasn’t aware of my work. So I was like, “OK, fine”. A lot of people was upset about it, my lawyer was upset, everybody was upset, but I was like “no, he wants me to audition, I’ll go audition, I don’t have a problem with it”.  I wanted to see if I could get this role, but the real problem I think for him was that I was older, so I ended up being the oldest woman to play Shug Avery, and older than the whole cast too. He worked with me personally to try to develop my own Shug Avery. It was kind of like, “how do you be older and sexy without it being not classy, and with the rest of the cast being younger too?” So he worked with me personally, and it was just one of the greatest experiences that I will have in my entire life. Because this version of The Color Purple, the revival, John Doyle is famous for stripping down shows to pretty much just concentrating on the story. You have to be really raw, and as an actress, I felt I was able to grow at a level I never even thought I could go. He brought that out of me and [helped] me shape Shug, so it’s just one of the greatest experiences of my life, and one of the best growth experiences as an actress of my life.

You’ve inspired so many people, by talking so honestly about having depression and Multiple Sclerosis. Did you think twice before talking openly about that?

The reason why I initially discussed it is because another friend of mine committed suicide on her birthday. And that made me say “I want to speak out, to see if I can help somebody” because I really never knew that she had depression, I just thought she was a fun [person]. This is the other thing, how people cope with different things, and different mechanisms, because she was always fun and drinking and [taking] drugs, and here I was thinking she was just like a good-time lady. I didn’t know she was actually really sad hiding behind all that, kinda like Robin Williams. I just wanted to see if I could speak out and see who I could help, if I could reach anyone. And it wasn’t until many, many years later that I spoke out about the MS because of the fact that as an entertainer, any limitations including depression, even though they’ve gotten better about it, will cause you not to get work. So even though I was dealing with everything, I waited until I got into a position where it was OK if I didn’t work. And then I spoke out about it.

Do you feel that music has the power to help and heal people?

It feels even more so now because, I think that at least you can get people to listen to a song, or the words of a song, and people can even curl up with a song. I mean, if it’s the right song, it’s huggable and it can give them a warmth to carry them through. And even with my big signature song from Dreamgirls, which was originally a love song, is really an anthem for a lot of people including myself, in terms of just a song of survival, and that you’re gonna tell the world and yourself “I’m not going”. It’s not singing about begging a man to love somebody anymore, but it’s about taking a stance for yourself to say “Hey, you’re gonna love me, and if you don’t love me, I’ve got to really do better in loving myself”.

I had to start looking at it that way because if not, I probably would not have wanted to sing it anymore, because you know, I didn’t want to sing a song begging a man to love me, that’s not who I am. But it’s bigger than that, which is why I still sing it, because the song represents something to each individual personally. So I don’t ever want to take that away from them, so every time I’m doing a concert I’m gonna sing the song, because it really is not mine anymore in terms of what it means to each individual who has made a relationship with that song. Some people have a religious experience with it, for some people it’s romantic, or it’s a warrior cry, an anthem of self-worth. It’s telling you “I’m not going anywhere” regardless of whether you love me or not.

Jennifer Holliday performs at Sydney Town Hall on July 6 and 7 as part of the Sydney Cabaret Festival.