Stardom, competition, lost love and empowerment — these are the perfect words to describe the iconic musical that is “Dreamgirls.” Focusing on the fictional Motown group The Dreams, the story revolved around three African-American women — Effie White, Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson — rising to fame in the music industry of the ‘60s and the ‘70s.
Like “The Book of Mormon” and “Wicked,” this play is a staple for any Broadway lover.
When it comes to the cast of this production hit, most people would probably associate Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson with “Dreamgirls.” While these big names did contribute to the success of the show, the original Dreamgirls cast made the show for what it is. The Dreamgirls cast of the Broadway version — namely Jennifer Holiday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine — were the original members of “The Dreamettes” (later “The Dreams).
The original production, which opened in December 1981, was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, which included Best Musical. “Dreamgirls” ultimately won six awards including Best Actress for Jennifer Holiday, Best Actor for Ben Harney, Best Featured Actor for Cleavant Derricks and Best Book of a Musical. It was a big moment for the Dreamgirls cast and staff since the show was a big hit. It boasted 1,500 shows before ending its successful run on August 11, 1985.
“Dreamgirls” experienced renewed popularity with the 2006 movie adaptation that starred Jennifer Hudson as Effie, Beyoncé as Deena, Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell and Jamie Foxx as Curtis. While the performance of these celebrities is to be applauded, there’s no denying that the original Dreamgirls cast cemented these characters in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Who are the Three Dreamgirls? Remembering the Story
“Dreamgirls” is the story of “The Dreamettes,” a group of African-American women. Lead singer Effie White and her backup singers Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson have big dreams. Each singer brings star power to the table, as well as a gripping story that moved viewers.
Inspired by Supremes singer Florence Ballard, Effie is the leader who boasts of talent but is also infamous for her diva attitude. She starts off on a good note as she and her friends become mainstream singers until Curtis Taylor, Jr., the man she loves, replaces her as the lead singer with Deena. On top of that, Curtis falls in love with Deena and forgets about her. A decade after being kicked out of the group, Effie resurrects her career while raising her daughter Magic.
Deena Jones is based on the Supremes’ lead singer Diana Ross and two former Supremes members Scherrie Payne and Jean Terrell. Initially, Deena is a shy singer who becomes a star after Curtis replaces Effie with her. Eventually, she marries Curtis and lives the life of a celebrity. However, she realizes over time that she has been nothing but a puppet to her husband.
Completing the Dreams is Lorrell Robinson, the good-natured member who was inspired by Supremes singer Mary Wilson. Lorrell finds herself entangled in a crazy love affair with Jimmy Early, a fellow performer, who happens to be married to someone else.
Who Was in the Original Cast of Dream Girls? And Where are They Now?
The original Dreamgirls cast is composed of the following Broadway stars: Jennifer Holiday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine.
Jennifer Holiday as Effie White
As mentioned above, Jennifer Holiday’s portrayal of Effie won her a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. She is best known for her performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which she originally performed in the finale of the first act of “Dreamgirls.”
In 1982, she sang the song again as a pop song and it topped the Billboard R&B charts. As a result, she won the 1983 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
After departing “Dreamgirls,” Jennifer Holiday appeared in several Broadway productions, which included “Chicago” (as Matron “Mama” Morton), “Grease” (as the Teen Angel) and the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.” She went on to become a successful gospel and R&B singer.
Sheryl Lee Ralph as Deena Jones
Sheryl Lee Ralph was just starting her Broadway career when she was nominated for a 1982 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her performance as Deena Jones. Before appearing on “Dreamgirls,” Ralph made her debut in the 1980’s “Reggae.”
After “Dreamgirls,” Ralph appeared in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” where she portrayed Muzzy Can Hossmere — a role that she reprised in a benefit concert for the Actors Fund last 2017. She also played roles in “Wicked.” One of her notable replacement roles as Madame Morrible. Apart from her many stage credits, Sheryl Lee Ralph also appeared in many TV shows, including “Claws,” “Ray Donovan,” “One Love,” “Moesha” and “Smash.”
Loretta Devine as Lorrell Robinson
Loretta Devine’s role as Lorrell Robinson jumpstarted her Broadway career, which eventually boosted her in the world of TV and movies. She eventually became part of “Big Deal” along with Cleavant Derricks. After her performance as Lily in “Big Deal,” Devine bid her Broadway career adieu and started appearing in TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Boston Public,” “The Doc Files,” “The Client List,” “The Carmichael Show” and “Being Mary Jane.”
Apart from the women of “The Dreams,” the other members of the original Dreamgirls cast had their share of the show’s success. Who are they and where are they now?
Ben Harney as Curtis Taylor, Jr.
Before appearing in “Dreamgirls,” Ben Harney was already a familiar name in the Broadway scene. He was the replacement for Leading Player in “Pippin,” the replacement for Tinman in “The Wiz” and a dancer in “The Pajama Game” revival. His performance as Curtis earned him a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. After his stint at “Dreamgirls,” he was part of the ensemble of the film version of “The Wiz.”
Obba Babatundé as C.C. White
Similar to Harney, Babatundé had appeared in previous Broadway shows before his performance in “Dreamgirls.” He was in “It’s So Nice to Be Civilized,” “Reggae” and “Timbuktu!” After “Dreamgirls,” he replaced Billy Flynn in “Chicago.” The younger audiences might know him for his role as Principal Green on “Dawson’s Creek.” He was also on Netflix’s “Dear White People” and continues to play Julius Avant on “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Cleavant Derricks as James “Thunder” Early
Derricks’ performance as Jimmy Early won him a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. After “Dreamgirls,” he continued his Broadway career by becoming Charley in “Big Deal,” which earned him a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical. He has also appeared in “Charmed,” “Roseanne” and “The Equalizer. He also arranged the music for the 2006 movie adaptation of “Dreamgirls.”
Deborah Burrell as Michelle Morris
Burrell’s character joins The Dreams after Curtis kicks out Effie. Burrell eventually replaced Ralph as Deena in the later productions of “Dreamgirls.” She went on to become part of the play’s national tour. After her performance as Deena, she appeared in other Broadway plays like “Pleasure Club,” “The High Rollers Social” and “Swinging on a Star.”
Although Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson renewed interest in “Dreamgirls,” the original cast of Jennifer Holiday, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine is the reason “Dreamgirls” continues to be an iconic part of Broadway. Thanks to them, everyone can be a Dreamgirl, too.