SPRINGFIELD — Jennifer Holliday has won a Tony Award and a Grammy Award, and yet before her nationally televised May 23 “American Idol” duet with runner-up Jessica Sanchez, the 32-year musical veteran admits she often felt like modern audiences didn’t know her name.
After going straight from a Baptist church choir to a Broadway stage at the age of 19, she starred and originated the lead role of Effie in the original Broadway run of “Dreamgirls,” leading to widespread fame.
More recent years, however, have been marked by a fair amount of musical frustration, as she found herself on the outside looking in toward the 2006 feature film adaptation of “Dreamgirls” and the success it brought to now-superstar Jennifer Hudson, who played the role of Effie.
“I think they were really trying to make the film a generational thing,” said Holliday, who will make a special one-night performance at Springfield’s Legacy Theatre on Sunday, July 1. “It had been so many years since the original Broadway show that I think they wanted to completely introduce it to a different audience. But yes, I was upset that I wasn’t involved in some way.”
Holliday’s reservations stemmed from the treatment of her most notable role without some form of recognition for herself as the role’s first performer. It was even more confusing for the singer, long known as “The Queen of Broadway Gospel,” to watch Jennifer Hudson win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and launch her career to new heights by playing her part in “Dreamgirls.”
“It’s like, here’s something you created, and there’s no acknowledgement of you, but on the other hand, how do you not feel proud when someone takes what you created and her interpretation wins an Oscar?” Holliday asked. “In the end though, it had the other effect of people starting to rediscover me. It got onto social media, and suddenly there’s lots of new interest.”
None of that interest could even hold a candle to the reaction Holliday received in the wake of her “American Idol” duet, however. In a powerhouse performance that many critics cited as stealing the show from season 11 winner Phillip Phillips, Holliday and Sanchez took the social media worlds of Twitter and Facebook by storm. They ended the dramatic song to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from judges Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson. Within a couple of days, the veteran singer watched her number of Twitter followers double, and it became obvious something very significant had just occurred.
“It was the ultimate affirmation to me that if you wait it out, good things will happen,” she said. “It was such a beautiful experience. I didn’t come back with any check or with a golden award, but it was an affirmation that ‘look, you still got it.’ It was like relevancy in four minutes.”
Now, Holliday feels reinvigorated in a way that she hasn’t felt for decades. Her performance in Springfield is just one of many scheduled for the near future, and she stops in Central Illinois on the way to St. Louis, where she will perform in a special production of “Dreamgirls,” reprising her original role.
She draws parallels to other singers such as Aretha Franklin who were able to experience career revivals in their 50s, and looks forward to many new opportunities to perform in places she never has before.
Despite three decades of professional singing, she insists there’s “still so much I’ve never done.”
“I feel like the sky is the limit,” Holliday said. “I’ve never done a movie, for one. There’s countries I want to return to and others where I want to perform for the first time. I’ve never even done a Christmas album. I don’t know if I’ll get to do any of these things, but I still feel like this is one of the greatest times in my life.”
IF YOU GO
WHO: Jennifer Holliday
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday, July 1
WHERE: The Legacy Theatre, Springfield
TICKETS: $35 or $50 for dessert reception following the performance