- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The unconventional characters at the heart of Bill Condon’s films — from the mythical, murdering Candyman in 1995’s “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” to controversial 1950s sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in the eponymous 2004 feature — have always seized attention.

Yet “Dreamgirls,” Mr. Condon’s $70 million big-screen adaptation of the 1982 Tony-winning musical, has generated the biggest buzz of his career. Oscar talk abounds, partly fueled by the film’s five Golden Globe nominations — including one for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy.

Astonished preview audiences have leapt to their feet and applauded newcomer Jennifer Hudson’s near-religious take on “Dreamgirls’ ” best-known song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.” The rags-to-riches tale of a trio of black female singers — often compared to the Supremes — also has brought holiday joy to Paramount, earning $8.7 million for its Monday opening on 852 movie screens nationwide to become the third-highest Christmas Day opening in history.

The studio will expand the release to about 2,000 theaters in a few weeks, giving the musical a good financial head start, says Rob Moore, president and chief operating officer at Paramount.

” ‘Dreamgirls’ is an Oscar contender if ever there was one,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media by Numbers. “It’s a crowd-pleaser.”

The film’s reception is “a bit overwhelming,” Mr. Condon says via telephone from New York, where “Dreamgirls” received standing ovations during a star-studded premiere on Dec. 4. “I’m as stunned as anyone about the cheers in the middle of the film. That’s something I’ve never seen before.”

The bespectacled Mr. Condon, 51, was just 26 when he scored a back-row seat for “Dreamgirls’ ” electrifying opening night at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre on Dec. 20, 1981. The future director, like everyone else, was mesmerized. The show would earn 13 Tony nominations and win six awards, including honors for Jennifer Holliday as the hearty-voiced Effie White (now embodied by Miss Hudson on-screen); Ben Harney as the ambitious showbiz manager Curtis Taylor Jr.; and Clevant Derricks as R&B; star James “Thunder” Early. It closed after 1,521 performances on Aug. 11, 1985.

Despite years of talk about a film, nothing materialized. “I think the original producers were just waiting for someone to come along they could trust with the concept,” Mr. Condon explains.

Beyond that, two of the show’s principal architects — director-choreographer Michael Bennett (the Tony-winning creator of “A Chorus Line”) and lyricist Tom Eyen (whose work on “Dreamgirls” earned a Tony for best book of a musical) had both died (in 1987 and 1991, respectively) since its opening. That left David Geffen, founder of Geffen Records and one of the principal financial backers of “Dreamgirls” on Broadway, to make the call on who would helm the film version, says Mr. Condon, a native New Yorker who earned a degree in philosophy from Columbia University.

Mr. Geffen “was not happy with the film adaptation of ‘A Chorus Line,’ ” Mr. Condon says of the 1985 adaptation of Mr. Bennett’s celebrated Broadway hit (which starred Michael Douglas), “and I think he sees himself as the protector of Michael Bennett’s legacy. So I went in and presented my concept, and evidently they liked what they saw. Also, I think that enough time had passed, 25 years, to view the show in its historical context.”

Composer Henry Krieger, a Tony nominee for scoring the songs in the Broadway production, also expressed his confidence in Mr. Condon’s big-screen treatment. “He’s widened the screenplay in such a way that it became more accessible as a movie,” Mr. Krieger says on the HBO documentary “The Making of ‘Dreamgirls.’ ”

“He’s today’s Michael Bennett in the movie industry.”

Filming began in January in Los Angeles, transformed through cinema magic into 1960s Detroit, where the movie is set. And along with what he calls an “amazing cast” (Beyonce Knowles, Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, superstar funnyman Eddie Murphy, veteran actor Danny Glover, Tony winner Anika Noni Rose and Miss Hudson), Mr. Condon also enlisted the talents of production designer John Myhre and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler. Both men previously had worked with Mr. Condon — Mr. Schliessler on 1995’s “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh” and Mr. Myhre on 2002’s “Chicago,” which copped the Academy Award for best picture and earned a screenwriting nomination for Mr. Condon.

“The key to doing a movie musical is to keep the story going through the songs so you don’t notice where the songs stop and end,” says Mr. Condon, an Oscar winner for penning the screenplay for 1998’s “Gods and Monsters,” starring Sir Ian McKellen as the openly homosexual and suicidal movie director James Whale (“Frankenstein”).

Despite widespread acclaim, Mr. Condon also has taken more than a few lumps for his interpretation of the project, called visually breathtaking but vapid by some and criticized by others (especially those from the Broadway cast) for taking artistic liberties with the original tale. His decision, for instance, to move the story’s setting from Chicago to Detroit has raised eyebrows and invited further comparisons to the saga of Motown Records and Diana Ross and the Supremes on which “Dreamgirls” is “loosely” based.

Original cast members also took umbrage over the decision to play up the demons that plague Mr. Murphy’s James “Thunder” Early in the film. “We didn’t want the characters to have addictions,” Mr. Derricks told Jet magazine recently.

Still, reaction to the movie has been mostly positive, giving Mr. Condon good reason to smile. “I wanted to maintain the theatricality,” he says. “Because it is, basically, a backstage musical.”

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