‘Dreamgirl’ Jennifer Holliday on learning from Broadway legends

As the young star of the early ’80s smash “Dreamgirls,” Jennifer Holliday received some important tips from the Broadway legends of the era, including Ethel Merman, Lauren Bacall and Ann Miller.

“It was a lot to undertake for me at such a young age,” says Holliday, who’s starring now in “The Color Purple,” opening Friday at the Merriam Theater. “Ethel Merman [told me] how to keep my voice together, don’t drink or do drugs, to go home. I am very fortunate people taught me how to do eight shows a week and be disciplined.”

A 21-year old Holliday starred, and won a Tony, as Effie in “Dreamgirls” in 1981, a role reintroduced to audiences in 2006 by another Jennifer awarded for the part: Jennifer Hudson, who earned an Oscar for her film version.

Holliday’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” has become an iconic Broadway standard and was also a No. 1 R&B smash. Yet, success did have its drawbacks for Holliday, who has had weight and depression issues in her career.

“Even with all that help, it made for a lonely life because to do it with only one day off, it wasn’t like today,” Holliday says. “You couldn’t Skype, you couldn’t text, I had to nurse my voice a lot and I was on vocal silence and to create friendships and things like that was a hard thing to do.”

Holliday has had a successful career since her “Dreamgirls” years. She’s performed on stage, on TV (“Ally McBeal”) and on records, both R&B and gospel. Her 2014 album, “The Song Is You,” was a Top 20 R&B billboard hit.

She’s been playing the role of Sofia in a touring version of “The Color Purple” for the past year. “She’s a different kind of character for me as she’s very funny and feisty and she has one big song,” Holliday says. “I’ve been enjoying it but this is the end of the tour.”

Not performing “Dreamgirls” does have its benefits.

“I have to go to such an emotional place every time I sing that song,” Holliday laughs. “I have to rest. I have to sit down!”

“The Color Purple”
Friday to Sunday
Merriam Theater
250 S. Broad St.
$50.50 to $56.50, 215-731-3333

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