West End Interview with Dreamgirls star Amber Riley
After 35 years the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls is finally making its West End première, in a brand new production directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Since being announced to open at the Savoy Theatre in late 2016, excitement has grown surrounding the leading cast members, with much anticipation regarding the casting of Effie White, the role originally created on Broadway by Jennifer Holliday, and played on screen in the film version by Jennifer Hudson, for which she took home an Academy Award.
American performer Amber Riley was catapulted to mainstream fame following her run as an original cast member in the successful musical series 'Glee', which followed the ups and downs of a High School Glee Club as they found their way in the high school hierarchy pulling together to face the odds and win national competitions. As one of the lead characters, Riley was joined by Broadway veterans including Matthew Morrison, Kristin Chenoweth and Lea Michelle, with much of the charm of the show coming from its audacity to blend musical theatre standards alongside current popular music.
One of my first questions when speaking to Ms Riley was about her role in Glee, especially since her character Mercedes Jones had already had the opportunity to perform Effie's act one anthem “And I'm Telling You”, a song which went on to be one of the stand out hits of the series. I wonder how performing such a song within the context of the musical Dreamgirls will be at all different from performing it on 'Glee'? “I am really excited – I love the song and can’t wait to perform it” she replies. “The interesting thing about performing it within the musical, rather than in a show on its own, is that there is a build up to that moment, it is part of the journey and the song is the be all and end all – completely in the moment. I think it is going to be exhausting but very cathartic. It is a big song but I am working with my vocal trainer so that I will be more than ready!”
Amber Riley in Glee
Whilst Dreamgirls has not yet enjoyed a West End production, I was interested to find out about Amber's initial thoughts on the show, and how much she previously knew about the role. “I love this musical, and singing the songs from it, but I didn’t think I would get the opportunity to perform in it myself”, she explains. “After they did the movie, and it was so massive I thought I might have missed my chance. That it is going to be here in London, for the first time, is pretty epic and I can’t wait!”Because of the worldwide success with Glee, I asked if Amber ever found it difficult to shake off the character, especially when looking to crossover into the world of musical theatre. “I truly embrace it, that part has given me a platform and opened the door to new opportunities like this one!” she replies. “Once of the great things about Glee was that there was a character that everyone could identify with, and I am glad that Mercedes was part of that.” I ask Amber if there was something unique about that show that has allowed so many of her fellow co-stars to make the transition onto the stage, in both London and on Broadway. “That show trained us to be ready for anything”, she replies. “We had to act, dance, sing, record – it really was the best training I could have hoped for!”
The role of Effie, and indeed 'the song', became synonymous with original star Jennifer Holliday following the original production, and entered the public consciousness once again following the film adaptation. I wonder if this makes the role all the more daunting, and ask Amber how she's planning on making the role her own. “I am really looking forward to finding Effie within myself” she states. “Everyone has had their experience of rejection, and Effie is on a journey – finding herself, and her own power within. I think it is something everyone can relate to and I am looking forward to working on that.” I ask if there's anything within her own life or personal journey that she thinks will help make the role resonate with her as an actress. “I am looking forward to going on this journey with her, I am really ready for it” she explains. “A lot of the songs, they narrate what is happening on stage, so it is like Effie’s inner monologue – I think, however I feel it, I am just going to go for it!”
Amber Riley in The Wiz Live
Working with Casey Nicholaw is certainly not an opportunity to pass up – he's currently one of the hardest working creatives in musical theatre, and recently had four Broadway productions running simultaneously, as well as two in London's West End. “Casey is so great and talented” Amber replies. “I am very excited, and I am looking forward to working with the whole company!”Competition for the role was always going to be tough, and I was desperate to know what the audition process was like, and how confident Amber felt. “First I auditioned in New York for Casey Nicholaw, and then I auditioned again in London with Sonia Friedman” she explains. “Both times I was really excited but I wasn’t 100% confident, as the first time I sang for Casey I was post-surgery so my voice wasn’t completely recovered when I came to London I had Bronchitis! But I had to try anyway as this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I had to at least try. When I got the call, I tried to keep it cool on the phone but I was over the moon!”
With the full cast of the musical now in place and rehearsals just around the corner, we certainly can't wait for London to finally see this iconic show in a brand new production. Amber remained tight-lipped about exactly what audiences can expect, but did promise great things. “It is going to be a brand new production, new director and choreographer with Casey, and whole new cast who’ll all bring their own style and chemistry to the show, and in London for the first time. We haven’t started rehearsals yet but I can promised you it is going to be EPIC!!”