Musical theatre has often explored the dark side of showbiz for source material, and Dreamgirls looks at the murky music industry in the 1960s as the big dreams of three women are both realised and destroyed.
Effie, Denna and Lorell are the Dreams who perform songs written by Effie’s brother C.C before hooking up with devious mechanic turned manager Curtis Taylor, who is quick to exploit tensions in the group. Along the way they sing back up for flamboyant soul man Jimmy Early before Curtis’ Machiavellian plans cause all sorts of heartbreak for the trio.
Samuel Nicolas is one of a strong male ensemble who do a lot of the heavy lifting in this energetic show, and he spoke to our Yorkshire Editor Paul Clarke about why Dreamgirls is resonating so strongly with both the cast and audiences during its run at Leeds Grand Theatre.
So, what’s the story?
Dreamgirls is about three young girls who are aspiring black artists in America and their hunger and determination to make it in the industry. Through their trials and tribulations, it all comes together as they have this common dream to be famous singers.
But as the money starts rolling in, and they hire a ruthless manager, things start to unravel for the trio.
It starts off unified, everyone is on the same page, but I think with the possibility of them making it and their dreams getting bigger and bigger, and other people chiming in, that gets lost within the story. Even though it does get lost because they all share that common goal they are willing to push on to make it.
Musical theatre has really mined the trials and tribulations of showbiz as source material so do the themes of Dreamgirls feel relevant to a mainly young cast?
It’s a relatable subject because although we’re working now, we all aspire to do more and bigger and better things after this as well. It’s very relatable as we are hustling, we have dreams and to be back on stage, especially during the pandemic when we didn’t work for a year and a half, two years. That hunger is very relatable to all of us in the show.
Tell me about your role?
I’m part of the male ensemble, so l am on every single night, and I’m first cover for C.C so whenever he is sick.
Most people outside the industry would think learning one role would be quite enough, so do you enjoy not knowing who you’re playing each night?
It’s not just one gig which is the beauty of being a swing or a cover. Every day could be different, but even as l’m chatting to you I could be on tonight, and I won’t know until I get the call at two o’clock. That’s what is exciting about it as I don’t know if you are going to be on or not.
One of the impressive things about the show is how you’ve recreated the tightly choreographed dance moves of those iconic 1960s boy and girl groups. How are you coping with singing and performing the complicated routines?
Luckily for me the majority of the shows I’ve done have been similar to this, so I’m used to it, but it’s still a challenge. I have to take care of myself outside the show which I didn’t release as I think it’s very easy to think I can rely on the show to keep fit, but the body gets used to it. It’s especially true for the male ensemble looking after yourself, trying to prevent injury and keeping up your stamina is important to last two and a half hours as it’s not easy.
So how do you keep that precision up day in, day out for weeks on end?
We are doing it in a respectful way to honour their talents and to be precise and on it. We’re always making sure we look unified because even though the steps are simple it’s very easy to get them wrong as it’s just a step click. But it’s more than that it’s also a groove, a feeling, and making sure we get across that onstage is what we have in our heads every night.
But it must still be tricky to get it right every night?
It’s very rigid, you’re in this number and turn your body at this certain time. The music is so great, and there is such a good groove, it’s easy to be in time with everyone and you’ve got to feel each other. So, for example, in the opening of the show I’m Little Albert as part of the Two Tones. I’m in front, so I don’t see them, and it’s making sure I can feel that energy so we are all in sync and doing everything at the right time.
The big showstopper in this show is And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, where Effie realises she is out of the group, and on press night Nicole Raquel Dennis won a very rare first half standing ovation for her barnstorming performance.
Both our Effies, Sharlene Hector and Nicole, are just great. You don’t get bored of it, even from rehearsals we’ve just been in awe of them both as they do things differently, and it’s great we have two Effies as every night is different. Most nights we are in the wings because I love that song as it takes us on such a journey, and it is done brilliantly.
And a big part of the story is the racial discrimination the artists have to overcome in an America that still segregated its audiences.
The story is so relatable because I think racism is still a thing that is very apparent in today’s society, so to do a story like this especially when you’ve got black artists like this who weren’t necessarily wanted by the major labels in America that were run by white men. In the show C.C writes Cadillac Car, and then all of a sudden that gets taken by a white artist, it was so easy to do because they had no rights over their music. It’s doing it in a respectful way that people can understand and leave knowing that even though these young black artists had all these trials, and had everything against them, they still pushed through and did what needed to be done.
What do you hope people will take away from Dreamgirls?
I want everyone to come away from this show with a sense of family, a sense that is a group of hungry, aspiring artists wanting to make it, and not leave anyone behind. Unity is a massive thing within our show, and I think through hard work and determination any dream is possible.
Dreamgirls is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 9th July. To book 0113 243 0808 or visit https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/dreamgirls/