Henry Krieger: The man who waited half his life to bring Dreamgirls to London
Henry Krieger gives a philosophical but grateful shrug. “As life sometimes reveals, the unseen hand is always at work.” He’s referring to the fact that it took Dreamgirls – the 1981 hit Broadway musical he composed – 35 years to reach the West End. It also took 19 years for Side Show – his third Broadway show that had two separate productions there in 1997 and 2014 – to come to London, as it did in for a run that has just ended at Southwark Playhouse.
“It’s just unexpected joy,” he remarks of the coincidence of having both shows arrive in London at the same time. “The last time I was here was for the BAFTA Awards for Dreamgirls, and I really enjoyed my stay, but the world has changed and keeps changing. Boy, oh boy, has it changed – in particular as an American of course my reference is that ridiculous Republican nominee, but I won’t say more than that.” When we met just before Side Show opened, Trump was only the Republican nominee, not the president-elect. I can’t imagine how Krieger, who has the air of a man for whom disappointment has been a frequent visitor, feels now.
Speaking of a 14-year gap between his second Broadway show, The Tap Dance Kid, and Side Show, for instance, I ask him what he did during that time, and he replies with grave honesty: “You suffer. It was hard. I did this and that – I can’t even remember what.” Today he is in a very reflective mood: he’s now 70, so Dreamgirls was, after all, half a lifetime ago for him. It was due to come to London a lot sooner, he reveals: “We had planned and were contracted to come here under the auspices of Robert Fox, with an American cast that was doing it in Paris first. But then Lady Thatcher introduced a confiscatory tax for foreign entertainers, and it became impossible to do business, so we didn’t get here. But I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s here now and that Casey Nicholaw is directing it.”
Nicholaw is the Tony-winning director/choreographer who is also represented in the West End by his productions of The Book of Mormon and Aladdin. The original Michael Bennett production of Dreamgirls was one of the first shows Nicholaw saw when he first got to New York as a young dancer.
Q&A: Henry Krieger
What was your first job? Writing music for the stage play Same Time Next Year on Broadway.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Maybe to mingle with people in the business more and go to more parties. But I’m not like that and if I had to do it all over again, I still wouldn’t. It’s not that I’m anti-social – I’m not – but it’s just not me.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Ray Charles – because as hackneyed as it is to say, he sang from the soul and I relate to communicating from the soul. I try to be that person, too.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t feel that the main event of this experience is being judged; don’t think about your self-esteem being affected by the people watching and listening. Have self-confidence in your value as an artist and immerse yourself in the character; be there in the moment and don’t worry about it.
If you hadn’t been a composer, what would you have been? Something to do with dogs – I love them.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No, but I found out about one from Lindsay Kemp when I did a show with him in the 1970s. I was in his dressing room one night and I started whistling. He screamed for me to stop.
Krieger created the show along with his late book and lyric writing partner Tom Eyen and director Bennett. So how did that original production happen? “Tom and I had written a musical that played London once called The Dirtiest Show in Town, which was a sort of reaction to Oh! Calcutta!. Nell Carter was the lead and she had a song that stopped the show, called Can You See?. The audience wouldn’t let us go on with the show for maybe five minutes. I remember I said to Tom, ‘Isn’t this marvellous?’, but he said, ‘No, it’s not any good at all – we’re 75% of the way into the act, how can we go on?’ ”
When a comparable moment arose in Dreamgirls, they made sure it went at the end of the first act – And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going – so the house lights went up with the audience on their feet. That phenomenon is already being repeated with preview audiences at the Savoy Theatre in London.
But how did Bennett, who knew how to engineer a show-stopping comment such as that, come to be involved? “We had taken the idea to Joseph Papp, and we did a workshop at the Public Theater that he ran, which Tom directed. And then Robin Wagner, the eminent stage designer who was a friend of Tom’s, kindly arranged for us to play the songs and talk about what we wanted to do for Michael Bennett. So we sang the show – about 10 songs, not all of which remained – to him, and Michael agreed to another workshop. It was during that that Michael asked for the title song – and I remember when we played it for the first time for the cast at the Shubert Theatre, where we were working on it.”
The rest is Broadway history. But it was not without its own fraught offstage hostilities, when rival musical Nine opened and swept up the major Tony Awards from under its feet. “It was quite a tussle, and it brought out the worst in everyone, including myself,” he admits with another note of refreshing honesty. “I was furious – they seemed intentionally out to steal our thunder. And the theatre is a small world that thinks it’s the only world when you’re in it.”
Nevertheless, the production ran for more than four years, and made a major cultural impact: “If you don’t count Porgy and Bess, which is really an opera, it was the first Broadway musical that actually concerned itself with black people’s lives and culture. I was always grateful for having made that happen, but also that people of any colour could identity with Effie in her big solo – everyone could see themselves in her, because we’ve all had personal betrayals in our lives, and to see this huge emotional thing happening in such a galvanised way meant that even little old white ladies could say that they feel that, too.”
Henry Krieger’s top tips
• Find a writing partner – unless you do lyrics and music yourself, in which case you don’t need one; but then find a book writer or director and other people you can collaborate with. Collaboration is everything – and an art form in its own right.
• Be hungry – don’t sit around and think it will come to you because it won’t, but it will if you’re active.
• Be fabulous, do your thing and find your own way.
The show is partly a fictionalised version of the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, and how one was promoted over the others. Did Ross ever see it? “I don’t know, but if she did she was probably wearing a deep veil. I know she did a concert on a huge rainy night in Central Park when she sang Family from the show. She rehearsed for it in the same place that The Tap Dance Kid was being rehearsed – so I met her. And she asked for permission to make a lyric change.”
The Tap Dance Kid that followed in 1983 ran for nearly two years, first at the Broadhurst Theatre and subsequently at the Minskoff Theatre. He says: “We priced the tickets to encourage African-American families to come and see themselves on stage, and had graduated prices so everyone could afford to see it.” But if that show was accessible to all, the problem with Side Show was – despite enthusiastic critical support, most notably from Frank Rich of the New York Times – nobody wanted to see it, on either occasion it played on Broadway.
“People were averse to the subject.” (It is based on the true story of a pair of conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton, who became a vaudeville sensation in 1920s and 1930s America). “I remember going with our stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner to the TKTS half price line on a snowy day to encourage people to come to see it. And there was one girl, who was 15 or 16, with her mother, and she really wanted to see it but her mother said no. So I told them I wrote the music for it and for Dreamgirls, and I said that if they came and wanted to walk out, I’d reimburse them for their tickets. She still said no. There was hardcore resistance.”
So doing it in London at last seemed, he says, “like an answered prayer”.
At the time we spoke, he was hopeful that it would find an audience here that it never did in New York: “I hope I’m right that there’s a much more sophisticated theatre audience here, and that it’s not all as dependent on tourists as it is in New York.”
You can tell he’s relishing being in London with a double-whammy of shows on. “I feel kissed by the happy spirits.” And he reveals that extends to his personal life: he’s been with his actor partner Robert Joy for 22 years. “I never though it would happen to me – but I’ve been madly in love the whole time.”
CV: Henry Krieger
Born: 1945, New York
Training: American University, Washington DC; Columbia University, New York
Landmark productions: Dreamgirls, Broadway (1981-85); West End (2016), The Tap Dance Kid, Broadway (1983-85), Side Show, Broadway (1997-98, 2014-15); Southwark Playhouse, London (2016)
Awards: Grammy award for soundtrack album of the year for Dreamgirls (2008), Grammy award for best song written for a motion picture or television for Love You I Do from Dreamgirls (2008)
Agent: Jack Tantleff, Paradigm Agency
Dreamgirls runs at the Savoy Theatre, London, until May 6