Dreamgirls - London

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Marisha Wallace on Starring in London's Dreamgirls, Her New Album & Thanking Jennifer Holliday

Marisha Wallace on Starring in London's Dreamgirls, Her New Album & Thanking Jennifer Holliday
Marisha Wallace in "Dreamgirls"
(Photo: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg)

Broadway’s Marisha Wallace has had quite a London year, between stepping into the seismic role of Effie White in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre, recording her first-ever album (Soul Holiday), and fitting in two intimate concerts on December 3 at the Charing Cross Theatre to celebrate its release. The North Carolina native found time one recent lunchtime to talk about one performer who genuinely is living the dream.

How are you finding time at the moment for everything that’s happening to you?
It has been crazy but it’ll smooth out and it’s not actually as intense as it may look. I made the album while I was standing by [for Amber White, who left Dreamgirls on November 18 at the end of her year’s contract]. Now, as Effie, I’m doing five shows a week, whereas there were times when I was doing eight or even 16 in a row. So, it’s still kinda crazy but it’s good.

Had you ever played Effie before?
I came out of Something Rotten! on Broadway to do it in Dallas during the summer of 2016 and then went back to Something Rotten! afterward. But the very first time I did it was in Manchester, New Hampshire when I was 21 right out of college. It was my first big role, and I thought if I can survive that, I can survive anything.

After covering for Amber and then sharing the part at certain performances with her for a year, how does it feel to be playing the role five times a week. [Moya Angela and Karen Mav share the remaining three performances.]
It definitely feels more settled. The thing about Dreamgirls is that this role isn’t like any other show, and I think everyone’s been figuring that out. It’s not just Effie; it’s about how do we keep the show sustainable. But I think we’ve got it now, and we’re charging into our second year full steam ahead.

How does it feel to be sharing the part not with one performer but with two?
What’s great now is that every Effie is recognized. I’ve seen Moya and Karen both go on, and I think I can say that this is a great show with any of us. That’s what people need to know about Dreamgirls, and it’s good for the Effies, as well. We don’t have to worry so much about singing for two-and-a-half hours at the top of our range because we know that we can have a great show and then have a rest and come back. The three of us are all Effies.

Doesn’t ego factor into it somewhere?
You have to put pride to one side. If it takes three Effies for this show to run forever, then that’s what it takes. We’re finding increasingly in this business that you’ve got to make the show the star. I mean, it’s not like the show itself calls out or gets sick. You don’t hear people going, “The Lion King is sick; I’m going to go sit down.”

Is this the model for Dreamgirls going forward?
If you’re talking Broadway, I have no idea. I think this is the trial and they’re going to see how it works. I just know it’s working well right now, and what it means is that the three of us can come together as a sisterhood. As the song lyric [from Dreamgirls] goes, “it’s more than you, it’s more than me.” It’s about us black women owning the show, and I’m a lot more excited about that than my ego.

What did you think of Amber’s performance?
I loved how she made Effie her own. It felt as if all the Effies I’d seen were doing some 1980s version of the part whereas Amber was doing her version that was for now in 2017. It felt to me as if she updated the role and elevated it, too.

Hasn’t this whole experience been one unanticipated event after another?
That’s for sure! I got a call last year saying “Come to London, we need another Effie; things are going crazy here,” and I packed my bags in three days. I was in rehearsals the day of our opening night [last December], and my first performance was the second week after opening.

Did you know then that you would be here a year later?
At first, it was only for three months and then the three months ended and they were like, “Don’t leave,” and then it became like, “Can you stay for a year? Can you stay forever?” [Laughs].

Had you been to London before?
No, but I’ve traveled worldwide and like adventure, so that didn’t bother me. And I'd been to Wales on the cruise ship where I met my husband [Dominic Lynch, a musician], so that was something; I remember [in Wales] not understanding anything anyone said.

Didn’t [original Broadway Dreamgirls star] Jennifer Holliday come see the production?
She did! Amber was on that performance, but I got to meet her at the photo op, and that was important because way back when I first heard Jennifer Holliday, I thought, “She sounds like me!” She was like a gospel singer on Broadway, and I didn’t know that you could be that in a Broadway show. It was important to me to be able to say thank you to her face.

Did you respond primarily to her sound?
The sound and also to her: with Jennifer, you had someone who is so uniquely herself, and I loved that about her. She was so unapologetic about her gifts and about who she was.

As a recording artist now yourself, what were your thoughts putting together your first album?
I liked the idea of Christmas songs that we may all know but that are then given an infusion of gospel and jazz and soul so as to shake up the holiday market. I found these amazing musicians who had worked with Amy Winehouse and Annie Lennox, and we got together for a live session in the studio and we just jammed it.

And your forthcoming concert?
That’s basically my album in concert, with other stuff added. I’m doing a duet with Tyrone Huntley and two duets with Rachel Tucker, and then we’re adding some other Christmas songs and also some surprises. I’m hoping it will be an amazing night of real music.

Is there something special about having accomplished all this in London, a continent away from home?
What’s been interesting is that I really feel like we take black talent for granted in America because it’s everywhere, so we don’t think about it as much. Here, I’ve heard people say, “My God, I’ve never felt like this in a theater: what is that music?” It feels like we’re doing something special for London, and they’re eating it up.

Do you ever worry about missing out on stuff on Broadway?
Not now I don’t. There isn’t a play on Broadway like this where we could be the leads. It feels as if there aren’t enough roles for us in New York right now whereas there’s been a renaissance in London. A lot of my black friends are coming here to work.

And I have to ask, do you ever get tired of singing “And I Am Telling You?”
[Laughs.] There was a weekend recently where I had to keep doing it not just for the show but special appearances and rehearsals for those appearances and so on and I was like, “I don’t know if I can sing this song one more time.” But when it starts, it’s like, “OK, here’s the rollercoaster.” And it’s all OK.