On Dec. 20, 1981, “Dreamgirls’’ opened at the Imperial Theater, bringing a “seismic emotional jolt” to Broadway, as the critic Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times. Written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen and directed by Michael Bennett, the musical followed the path of a Supremes-style girl group and its driven, unscrupulous manager.
Six Tony Awards and a run of more than 1,500 performances followed, as — finally — did a hit 2006 film starring Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar as the spurned singer Effie White, whose no-holds-barred “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” has become the show’s signature song. (Last week the show made a belated debut on the West End in London, with the “Glee” star Amber Riley in the role.)
Members of the original Broadway cast included David Alan Grier, Phylicia Rashad and Loretta Devine, who went on to successful television careers, and Jennifer Holliday, a Tony winner as Effie, who is once again on Broadway in the closing weeks of “The Color Purple.”
For Sheryl Lee Ralph, who played the glamorous Deena Jones, and Ben Harney, who portrayed her manager and lover, “Dreamgirls” was unforgettable, but Broadway stardom was short-lived.
Mr. Harney, now 64, walked away from the stage for the ministry. Ms. Ralph, 59, has been an author, an active presence in film and television and an advocate in the fight against H.I.V. and AIDS. She’s back on Broadway for the first time in 13 years — the first African-American actress to portray Madame Morrible in “Wicked” there.
Interviewed separately, the pair — who hadn’t seen each other in person in years but had stayed in touch — sat for a joint photograph last weekend. (To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the opening, original cast members plan to gather for a group portrait outside Mr. Bennett’s former Chelsea rehearsal studios.) Their reflections on the show and its aftermath have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Did you have any inkling “Dreamgirls” would be the enduring show it has become?
BEN HARNEY All I can say is that you have hopes it will. We knew we were a part of a story the kind of which had not been told about African-Americans on Broadway. “Dreamgirls” was one of the first, if not the first, Broadway shows that told the story of black Americans rising to great success. And [set designer] Robin Wagner’s brilliance of collaborating with Michael to bring cinematic values to the stage, with the scene changes, the cross-fades and dissolves — that we felt was remarkable.
SHERYL LEE RALPH Why would it not work? For these white men to come up with a concept about black girls making it, how could I not believe that it wouldn’t be a hit? I had to. It was my dream come true.
Ben, you had quite a few Broadway credits before “Dreamgirls” and none after. What happened?
HARNEY I’m guessing my love for ministry became the primary focus. I started a Broadway Bible study while in “Dreamgirls” that grew quite large. Just suffice it to say that I continued to work in the arts but with a focus toward impacting community and lives in another way.
Was it a religious epiphany? Did you get saved during “Dreamgirls”?
HARNEY [Laughs] O.K. Well, my getting saved, if you will, happened in ’79. It was actually before the workshop of “Dreamgirls.” I fell in love with the word of God and the workings of God in a way that was different than just the traditional or presumptive way. It became something more, I guess, more of a pursuit in my heart than just performing. I love the arts, I always have, I always will. The arts are always part of the work I’ve done in ministry.
Sheryl, Broadway lore has it that a bitter rivalry between you and Jennifer Holliday was fueled on opening night when Michael Bennett gave her expensive diamonds.
RALPH On opening night, Michael gave Jennifer Holliday diamonds and he gave me a brass buckle. The seeds were deeply planted at that point, and so planted that they had sprouted roots and vines and things that were not even worth keeping, so we just move on. Because I’ve been able to buy several pair of diamonds for my own damn self. (Ms. Holliday declined to be interviewed for this article.)
What about the intervening years has surprised you?
RALPH I would say how difficult it would be, trying to make the transition to Hollywood. I’ll never forget going to California, and a big-time casting director looking me dead in my face and saying, “Everybody knows you’re a beautiful, talented girl, but what do I do with a beautiful, talented black girl?” I remember exactly what he said to me, he said: “Do I put you in a movie with Tom Cruise? Do you kiss? Who goes to see that movie?” That was just 32 years ago!
Did you think you’d be back on Broadway in a role that you wouldn’t originate?
I always knew that theater would be definitely a part of my life. It is always wonderful to originate a role, but if you can’t, it is wonderful to break a glass ceiling. Here I am able to break this creative ceiling by having people say: “Well, why can’t this [character] be a black woman? Why can’t we rethink what we think we thought?” I’m very happy that it’s me.
Ben, what’s surprised you about the years since “Dreamgirls” opened?
HARNEY Even after there were those who didn’t give it all the props we thought it should have gotten, it influenced so many young people and now, I can say, generations. It even brought a fabulous vehicle in film, with Beyoncé, Anika Noni Rose and launching Jennifer Hudson to become the star she is now.
What did you think of Jamie Foxx’s version of “When I First Saw You”?
HARNEY We ain’t going to get into that. We’re going to bypass all of that. [Laughs] I thought there were some brilliant ideas that [the director Bill] Condon [brought]. We’ll leave it at that.