Jennifer Holliday is best known for originating the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls. In addition to a Tony for that role, her résumé also contains two Grammy Awards (one for her recording of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday”). This month, Holliday returns to Ellington for the musical revue Sophisticated Ladies at ZACH Theatre in Austin (July 15–Aug. 23).
How did you get involved in the production at ZACH?
Producing artistic director Dave Steakley personally reached out to me. I said yes mainly for one reason: the original production starred a beautiful R&B singer named Phyllis Hyman, who later committed suicide a week before her birthday. I knew her well and lived not too far from her in New York, and I just thought this was a way to personally pay homage to her. That was the first reason in my heart. Then the second reason was: Who doesn’t love Duke Ellington’s music? And I get to wear a gown! It’s a no-brainer, you know?
You have experience singing jazz, but you can also do powerhouse Broadway ballads. Are there similarities between those two kinds of music?
Classic jazz music goes a little bit further than Broadway. Yes, I have a big voice and I’m able to do these great big bring-the-curtain-down songs. For jazz songs, though, you have to be able to bring a listener so close to you in terms of melody lines and lyrics, and those powerful haunting chords and progressions—it’s maybe not where everyone’s jumping to an immediate standing ovation, but they’re definitely moved to tears. It’s not always a standing ovation that lets you know you’ve delivered a number and moved people.
You do a lot of concerts. The jazz standards must be a welcome vocal break in between the powerhouse songs.
The thing is, if you don’t know your instrument, it doesn’t matter what you sing—you’re still going to have throat problems. This is not me taking a dig at Sam Smith, but I’m just saying—he had a vocal hemorrhage, and it’s like, okay, and what did you get that from? He won the Grammy for “Stay with Me” [sings the chorus]. Okay, so you’re having voice problems from singing that? Really? Okay. It’s a great song, but I don’t know why he would be having voice problems so early in his career, having to cancel tours and stuff. That’s not a dig. So many young artists have voice problems. If you don’t do the preparation that goes into singing, I don’t care if your voice is a soft one or as big as mine, you’re gonna have problems.
Speaking of big songs, you’ve been singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” for your entire career. How do you keep the song fresh for yourself?
I keep it fresh by being honest and by allowing each audience to be a new audience, instead of going, “Okay, let’s do this number.” It’s not on automatic for me—I close my eyes and make it new again, because a lot of people have never heard me sing the song live before. I have a whole new younger following now as well. It’s not a burden for me. I took on the responsibility at a young age of preserving my voice—I don’t drink, I didn’t do any smoking, I didn’t do any recreational drugs. I stayed dedicated to trying to make sure that when people came to hear me, I could deliver.
What’s the secret to a long life in the theatre?
The beauty of the theatre is that it’s ageless. I am a Broadway baby, because I went straight from the Baptist church choir to the Broadway stage at 19 years old—that’s where they taught me how to take care of my voice, how to pace myself. So I owe Broadway a lot. The secret to longevity in terms of being a Broadway artist is that you are able to grow into the different roles that you could play and the different songs that you could sing. I’m 54 now. Can you imagine, Cicely Tyson just won her first Tony Award? Broadway is ageless, and that’s the beauty of it. And now it’s embracing more diversity, more eclectic pieces, and also bringing the classics back. I think it’s a great time for theatre, I actually do.
What do you always have in your dressing room?
Oh, first and foremost, hot tea! I love Earl Grey tea. Second is Fiji water. A can of Lysol [laughs]—it’s lavender and the can is purple. My favorite colors are purple and lilac—mostly everything in my dressing room becomes shades of purple: my robe, my house slippers, everything gets transformed into purple and lavender, some pink and fuchsia. That’s about it—no fresh flowers, and no food.
Why no flowers?
I don’t want anything that can give me sinus problems. I’ve done pretty well through the years. I live in Atlanta—it’s where I’m talking to you from right now—and it’s hard when I come home, because this is an allergen place. The trees have flowers, their flowers have flowers, the grass has flowers. You know what, I may need to move! I may need to move back to Texas or somewhere, because this is way too many flowers for me!