Dreamgirls - London

Be transported to a revolutionary time in American music history.

West End Dreamgirls Star Adam J. Bernard on Finding His Moves and Prepping for the Olivier Awards

West End Dreamgirls Star Adam J. Bernard on Finding His Moves and Prepping for the Olivier Awards
Adam J. Bernard in 'Dreamgirls'
(Photo: Brinkoff)
'My mum thinks this all comes from muscle memory.'

Adam J. Bernard has appeared on the London stage in Thriller Live and I Can’t Sing! The X Factor Musical but is having a breakout year with his thunderous performance as the James Brown-like Jimmy Early in the West End debut of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. The legendary Broadway title in its U.K. premiere has been nominated for five Olivier Awards, including a richly deserved supporting nod for Bernard, who was understandably abuzz when Broadway.com chatted with him one recent afternoon.

How does it feel to be nominated for an Olivier Award?
To be honest, this entire year has been incredible. I’ve never been nominated for anything, so to have this, which is the biggest theatrical night of the year—I am just so happy!

How did you learn of your Olivier nod?
I was driving with my girlfriend and had stopped off to get petrol and we were listening to the nominations thinking my category wouldn’t be till later and then it turned out [Best Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical] was the first one to be announced, and I was literally standing there with a petrol can.

Did you drop it in excitement?
Nearly, yes, and they probably thought I was going to drive away. Then I went in and paid.

Were you even around when the musical premiered on Broadway in 1981?
No, I’m only 28! But it’s quite interesting: my mum always reminds me that I was raised on James Brown and had a videotape of him that I would just play over and over. My heroes growing up were Michael Jackson and James Brown, and I would do all the crazy leg movements as a kid that I do in the show. My mum thinks this all comes from muscle memory, and she must be right.

How do you sustain your level of energy?
I am tired by the end sometimes, especially on double-show days. But there’s something about when the onstage lights hit you and you hear the music that you don’t even think, “Can I do it?” The adrenaline just takes you; it transports you to somewhere else. 

Is the part doing wonders for your fitness?
When I was younger, I wanted to be a professional football player, so doing eight shows a week of Dreamgirls does feel like a sport. I’m finding the same physicality that I used to experience in football and the same amount of physical endurance. I’ve always had a love in my heart for football, but, equally, I’m so proud of what I have been able to achieve in the theater.

Can you go out after the show?
Afterward, I am basically out of commission. A lot of the company go out and that’s great, but sometimes I have to listen to my body and rest. I feel like to give out the amount of energy that we do onstage means also finding time for myself to wind down and chill out.

How has it felt on this show being an Englishman surrounded by quite a few Americans, including leading lady Amber Riley?
As a song in the show says, “We are a family,” which I think speaks for itself. We are all a big family on this show, and we support and hold onto one another tightly. And for a Brit, I really do feel honored to be part of this show and for it to have done so well: it’s out of this world. 

Did you research the history of the stage show as such?
I had looked up Jennifer Holliday on YouTube, but my main reference was the film. But in the end, no matter how much stuff is out there, it’s all about love and passion and about hearing the music in your body when your soul tells you what to do—and being open enough to listen to it.

Was the movie difficult to put to one side?
It’s interesting: when I got into rehearsals, Casey [Nicholaw, the director/choreographer] said, “OK, use your references.” So, for instance, I had on Spotify a broadcast version that had Billy Porter as Jimmy and his vocals were insane. But at the same time, Casey wanted us to stay away from the movie and from relying on any other version: he felt that the writing speaks for itself and that we should approach the show itself as an amazing piece of work.

How are you preparing for Olivier Awards ceremony on April 9?
I’ve been offered a suit and had a fitting last week. Everything about the Oliviers is completely new to me, so I have been trying to take it in my stride and stay grounded. I’ve got lots of family coming, including my brother from New York and my aunt from Antigua, and I just want to enjoy the experience.

And the inevitable question: have you prepared a speech?
I haven’t yet, though, at some point I will sit down and write something just in case: I’ve got my fingers crossed!