Grammy winner Jennifer Holliday, most recently on Broadway as Matron "Mama" Morton in the Tony-winning revival of Chicago, returns to 54 Below February 21–26 as part of the Manhattan cabaret's Diamond Series.
Holliday's upcoming show, featuring love songs to celebrate Valentine’s Day week, will include a mix of popular tunes and Broadway hits. And of course Holliday will sing her signature torch song from Dreamgirls, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." The actor, who will also pay tribute to some of her favorite composers, including George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and Duke Ellington, will be accompanied by a septet of musicians.
Holliday catapulted to fame in the lead role of Effie “Melody” White in the 1981 hit Dreamgirls, winning a Tony for a volcanic, often gut-wrenching performance that remains among the elite group of musical theatre greats. Her additional Broadway credits include The Color Purple opposite fellow Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, Grease, and Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.
In the brief chat below, the dynamic artist discusses how she chooses songs for her concert and cabaret work, the inspiration she derived performing in the Tony-winning revival of The Color Purple, and why she is particularly ready "to go for the gusto!"
What is your typical day like now?
No day is a “typical day” for me. I travel almost every weekend to perform all across the country. If I’m traveling, my day starts with room service. I love room service breakfast! I always have to go do a soundcheck/rehearsal before my performance, which is usually late afternoon. An early dinner is a must because I cannot have any food three hours before I perform. I prefer to perform on an empty stomach, so I’m usually starving right after my show and signing autographs.
If I’m at home in Atlanta, my day is very quiet, with vocal rest in the morning and reading/meditation/prayers. In the late afternoon, maybe I do some shopping or run a few errands. In the spring and summer, I try to play a round of golf at least once a week. My evenings at home are also quiet—I like to relax and listen to smooth jazz. I also love streaming to catch up on all of the latest movies and TV series.
When I go to concerts, I'm always interested in what songs the artist chooses to open and close the show. What goes into that decision-making process for you?
Choosing songs for my show can be a stressful decision-making process for me. I know hundreds of songs in my repertoire that I love to sing or songs I’ve heard that I would really love to sing. So many songs to choose from for just an 80-minute show! I usually like to customize every show with certain songs for each specific audience in each specific city. Some songs don’t work with some audiences, so I have to keep that true factor in the back of my mind. My song decision also depends upon what type of show I’m performing, either for a symphony audience or a large concert hall or a cabaret performance, which is very intimate like 54 Below.
What can audiences expect from your upcoming engagement at 54 Below?
Audiences can expect a very personal and up-close music experience with me for the 54 Below “Diamond Series.” Most of the songs I’ve chosen will have a personal meaning to me, and I’d really like for the audience to learn a little about me personally. I’m not going to do too much talking, but I would like to share a few personal insights about myself through my show. Also, I’ll be backed up by seven amazing musicians of New York’s finest, which is absolutely thrilling for me!
Do you enjoy performing in such an intimate space as 54 Below? How does that compare for you to working in a larger concert hall?
Whether I’m performing in a large concert hall or an intimate space like 54 Below, I feel at home. Funny that you asked me this question because I’ve wanted to ask the very same question of Barbra Streisand when she performed at the Village Vanguard. How did she feel singing in such an intimate space? I think that most artists adapt to every room after they enter the stage. It doesn’t matter what size of the room. If I can feel the love and the energy coming from the audience across the footlights, then I’m inspired to sing from my heart and to give the audience everything that I have inside of me to give.
Other than Dreamgirls, do you have a favorite Broadway experience (as a performer)? Why was that show particularly special to you?
My most favorite Broadway experience thus far was my role as Shug Avery in the revival production of The Color Purple, co-starring alongside Cynthia Erivo. It was so special to me because I experienced a wealth of growth as an actress. Cynthia Erivo is truly the gold standard of acting especially in live theatre. It was like being in a master class. Although I’m 25 years older than Cynthia, I was totally inspired by watching her perform every night. I had to “level-up” by working on my acting with the director John Doyle, who spent many hours helping to bring my own portrayal of Shug Avery to life.
What, if anything, did you learn about yourself during the past two years that you didn't already know?
The pandemic was an extremely difficult two years for the human race. As for me, I came out of the pandemic stronger and more determined than ever to take more chances in my life: to go for the gusto! During the pandemic years, I learned that I was a very lonely person. I learned that I had built my life around “just being a performer.” So without having any place to travel to perform, I learned that I desired so much more out of life. At 62 years old, I don’t know how many years I’ve still got to live, but moving forward I’m going to embrace life!