HENRY KRIEGER: The Dream Maker

After a successful Broadway run spanning over two decades, the hit musical Dreamgirls was resuscitated as a major motion picture event. It earned an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nod for Eddie Murphy and an Oscar for American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, who simply stole the film with her feisty portrayal of “Effie White” and a breathtaking vocal tour-de-force on “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Loosely based on the dramatic story of Motown hit makers, The Supremes, Dreamgirls was not only a box office smash, but its soundtrack soared to the top of the Billboard charts.

After a successful Broadway run spanning over two decades, the hit musical Dreamgirls was resuscitated as a major motion picture event. It earned an Academy Award Best Supporting Actor nod for Eddie Murphy and an Oscar for American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson, who simply stole the film with her feisty portrayal of “Effie White” and a breathtaking vocal tour-de-force on “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Loosely based on the dramatic story of Motown hit makers, The Supremes, Dreamgirls was not only a box office smash, but its soundtrack soared to the top of the Billboard charts.

Working alongside lyricist Tom Eyen, Henry Krieger crafted the exquisite and evocative ‘60s-styled music for the long-running Broadway play, which debuted in December 1981 at New York’s Imperial Theater. Fast forward over 25 years; with the movie version of Dreamgirls given the green light, Krieger was offered the opportunity to revisit familiar stylistic ground and create four new songs for the film. Collaborating with several lyrical partners, including Siedah Garrett (Eyen is deceased), Krieger hit musical pay dirt. In 2007, three of the new songs-“Listen,” “Love You I Do” and “Patience”-scored Academy Award nominations for Best Song.

He is currently working with lyricist Susan Birkenhead on the score for a new musical, The Flamingo Kid, which is based on the 1984 motion picture starring Matt Dillon. American Songwriter recently sat down with Henry Krieger for a look behind the curtain at his Dreamgirls.


Could you point out some of your early influences that inspired you to write songs?

I started with Fats Waller when I was a kid, and that got me going. I loved the melodies of Frédéric Chopin. Those were kind of my beginnings. I also loved Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, [Alan Jay] Lerner and [Frederick] Lowe…that’s the kind of music I heard in my household. I really wasn’t a “musicals” person per se, but I did like South Pacific a lot. I loved the songs. I enjoyed Fiddler On The Roof when we went to see it as a family. And Lil‘ Abner was fun. But the music that really stirred me was Ray Charles-his singing and playing and the way he was able to jump on anything and make it his own.

Do you feel there is a different mind set writing songs for stage/film?

Yes. When you’re writing for stage and film-in most cases-you’re writing for a character that needs to be understood and to forward the story.  An example: when Effie sings “Love You I Do” early on in the Dreamgirls film, she reveals in a very clear way how excited and happy she is that she has a manager and a love interest…and it seals it so the audience knows from her exuberance and her total faith. It sets her up for the disappointment later.

Discuss your writing partnership with Tom Eyen. The two of you created all the songs for the Dreamgirls Broadway play.

We had a vision of the kind of music that we grew up with becoming parts of a Broadway musical. That music was rhythm and blues, not just Motown…people like Etta James, Jackie Wilson and The Drifters. Tom’s idea was to show what backup singers with ambitions could do if they were brought into the spotlight as soloists. My idea was to take the music I loved and reinvigorate the palette of Broadway with music that wasn’t always harkening back to an arcane form of music. Also we added recitative. It’s an Italian word that means…if I’m saying, “Ken, it’s time for breakfast,” I sing it [Sings “Ken, it’s time for breakfast…].

Could you talk about the unique opportunity that presented itself when you were tapped to write new songs for this project?

One is always intimidated by a whole great big new challenge. But I was thrilled at the opportunity. I fell in love with the film’s director, Bill Condon. Besides being brilliantly talented in so many ways, he’s one of the most down-to-earth, humane individuals I’ve ever met. And he really wanted me to do this job.

Was it tough getting back into the writing mindset of Dreamgirls?

It was effortless. I am that music. I am that story. That was the seminal kind of thing for me-to be able to bring the music that I grew up with as a teenager and run it through my own sensibilities as a storyteller and as a singer. I’m a singer underneath everything. You know how an actor shows you a story? Well, a singer sings a story, and I sing through my characters. It was just like getting back on the bike because that whole style, that source…is me.

You accomplished something unprecedented in Oscar lore; three of the new songs from the film were Academy Award nominees for Best Song…my pick for best song was “Listen.”

“Listen” was the song that took the most time and hard work because we needed to fashion something in the musical vernacular of Beyoncé while at the same time adhere to what the movie needed story-wise. That song took a while to write because, generally speaking, I don’t write Beyoncé songs. I teamed up with Scott Cutler, who did a lot of musical innovation on the song…and Anne Preven, who wrote the lyrics. We would show Beyoncé what we were doing and she would ask for maybe a little of this and a little of that. It was a group effort and a lot of fun.

Characterize the stylistic ingredients that needed to be a part of the songs’ DNA to make it Dreamgirls worthy.

The songs needed to be faithful to the character and where the character was going in the story. Simple as that. The songs are tied in with the storytelling. If it works to move the story, it’s right. The song has to sound like the voice of the character, the DNA-as you say-of the character. And if you capture that, it works.

I’d be remiss not to talk about the Jennifer Hudson showcase, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Tell us how the song came to be written, and why you think people connect so strongly with it.

That song certainly has won a lot of talent contests for people [laughs]. It’s dynamic kind of song that builds…declaring that no matter what may seem to be, nobody’s gonna rub me out.  No one’s gonna stop me from achieving my dreams. I worked on that song for a couple of hours and came up with nothing. Then Ray Stark, who was rehearsing for the movie Annie, came into the room I was working and asked to use the phone. I said, “Great, go for it.” When he left the music just came right through me and wrote itself. The song is a little bit like, if I may be so bold, the kind of experience that people seem to relate to. It’s like the opera Pagliacci. It’s a similar situation; you’ve got a lone figure who feels he’s been completely stabbed in the back and sings his heart out. It also indicates a trajectory of the character that another shoe is gonna drop, and maybe that’s what people really relate to-the heroism of the outcast.


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