Pivoting has been the name of the game for so much of us in the past year and a half, and that is just as true for the Broadway legend Jennifer Holliday. As Broadway reopens and live theater returns, I got the chance to sit down for extensive chat with this LGBTQ icon. We discussed the onset of the AIDS epidemic as Holliday was reaching career heights on Broadway (and how the two intersected), the roles she would love to take on, and what lessons the past year and a half have taught this superstar and advocate.
MC: When did you know that the LGBT community truly had a great deal of love for you?
JH: Well, that is two- fold. It wasn’t just a love for me, it was a love for Dreamgirls. Unfortunately at that time, AIDS had just arrived at the same time that Dreamgirls had opened. At that point, it did not have even have a name. Unfortunately, at the time lots of people were dying including most of the male cast and creative team of Dreamgirls all died of AIDS. On one hand, their love and support for the show had already started because they were supporting us. It was like Dreamgirls!; every drag queen was able to impersonate us because they had not seen anything on Broadway at that time. Now there are plenty, but forty years ago there were not. They immediately grabbed hold to us and supported us. Right in the midst of our great success comes out great heartache, connecting with them. Myself, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and some of the others were on the phone asking people to come collect their loved ones. Back then, a lot of people were still in the closet, so a lot of parents said that not only did they not know that their children were gay, but they did not want them.
They were heartbreaking times to go through, but at the same time an exhilarating time. We have all gone through something like that, where it is wonderful and then yet it is heartbreaking at the same time. That started the love affair with Dreamgirls, and then out of that because I just feel that the gay community is just faithful and devoted, that I was able to transfer from that. I am the only one that went on to do music right away. That is when I started playing the Paradise Garage, Splash, and a lot of those gay clubs that I played at three or four o’clock in the morning, and at the Paradise Garage the showtime would be five am! Through me still singing after Dreamgirls and being the only one who went into a recording career, that allowed me to be even more closer to the community, I played a lot of those gay clubs and bars. They remain loyal; they are one of those communities and they will always come out and support you.
MC: Speaking of your music, your musical catalog is an entirely different legacy of yours. Whether it’s ’No Frills Love’, ‘A Woman’s Got The Power’ or ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”, dance floors continue to be packed when a Jennifer Holliday track is played. Is it still surreal to see fans hit the dance floor to your singles still to this day?
JH: It is very nice. Now with social media, I get tagged often with people doing different routines, especially to ‘A Woman’s Got The Power’. They will send different ones and tag me, either with people competing to it or doing a routine. It has surprised me that that one has carried on because music has changed so much. The gay community is just a faithful community.
MC: So many Broadway performers put their stamp onto so many roles throughout their career. Is there any role that you would absolutely love to take on?
JH: Dreamgirls was phenomenal, but again it was forty years ago. You do keep looking and searching for something that would be perfect. It would be great if I was able to have a new type of show, but if I wanted to go back in time, I would love to do Mame. It lends itself to where the cast could be all different colors. She was worldly and the cast could be all different colors. I would also love to do Gypsy, but that would be harder because my children would have to be black and I don’t think the story would work as well from that era. I love that score from Gypsy though. Mame, I have sung ‘If He Walked Into My Life’ many times, that is a beautiful score as well.
MC: So much has changed in the past year and a half; what is next for you?
JH: Unfortunately, not all indoor industries are not back just yet. I have a lot of things in the fall, and had some things for Los Angeles, but some people have said that they still may need to stream. It is okay to stream, but you still have to have less people in the audience, it is a different kind of feeling since you have to have less people in the audience. With the new vaccination campaign, hopefully by late autumn, we will hopefully be able to celebrate!
MC: We have known so much about Jennifer Holliday the performer, but what is one thing that we don’t know about Jennifer Holliday the person that surprises us? A wiz in the kitchen maybe? Is there something you still have yet to do?
JH: (Laughs) No I cannot cook, I wish that I could! I don’t know if there is anything that anybody doesn’t know about me in terms of what is interesting about me. People have asked me why I haven’t written my book yet, I tell them because I’m really boring, I don’t have a lot of juicy things to put in there. My life has been to sing and to be on stage. Even at the age of sixty, I am kind of looking now to get a lot more out of life. I know that I am late, but I am grateful that I still have something to look forward to.
As for something that I have not done? I have not been in an actual movie. I am going to be doing my first independent movie, it is called The Road To Galena. I am excited about that, it is my first non-singing role and my first acting role for a movie. That takes care of my fall, and then I start the new year off with concerts. I have a residency at 54 Below and I will start there. I am so excited to look towards the future to performing, with some things on hold. Its hard to dream and plan when you have to say “we’ll see”
MC: Is there a lesson that you have taken from the past fifteen months that we as a country have gone through?
JH: There are so many takeaways from this, but the greatest lesson for me is that we take so much for granted. That things are going to just as always go as planned. Not that we didn’t know that before, but more than ever before now, we have a much bigger appreciation and gratitude for life and for living. Unfortunately for my job, it does require people. So therefore, it is how much more I appreciate the opportunity to do that.
Sweet Charity is one of my favorite shows, And there is that song “There has got to be something better than this. There has got to be something better to do. And when I find me something better to do, I’m gonna get up, I’m gonna get out I’m gonna get up, get out and do it”! I personally want to incorporate more life into my life. More life into my living. Laugh more, and really embrace as much as I can. I am grateful that I have a job and will be singing, but I am more grateful that I am gonna make me some plans to live; that is what I am gonna do.
Photo Courtesy-AP (via ABC News); Photo Credit; People Magazine; Philly Inquirer; Jennifer’s Twitter)