Stars In The House Welcomes Reunions of Star Search and Dreamgirls' Effies

Seth Rudetsky   Stars In The House Welcomes Reunions of Star Search and Dreamgirls' Effies
 
Lillias White, Rosie O’Donnell, and more were guests on Seth Rudetsky's virtual show.
in <i>Dreamgirls</i>
Lillias White in Dreamgirls Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

We keep hauling out the reunions on Stars In The House, and, boy, are they great money raisers. We’re now up to $662,000 raised for The Actors Fund! Last week we had a reunion of women who played the role of Effie in Dreamgirls after Jennifer Holliday. So many amazing stories about how everyone got the gig, and, hilariously, we decided that they all got cast because at some point they acted like Effie at their audition.

Yvette Cason came in numerous times for the part, and at the fourth call back, Michael Bennett asked what she was going to sing. She told him, annoyed, “I don’t know…you’ve already heard everything!” Well, after that comment, he told her she didn’t have to sing, she had the part.

Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley with the women of <i>Dreamgirls</i>: Fuschia Walker, Kecia Lewis, Sharon Catherine Brown, Julia Nixon, Lillias White, and Roz Ryan
Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley with the women of Dreamgirls: Fuschia Walker, Kecia Lewis, Sharon Catherine Brown, Julia Nixon, Lillias White, and Roz Ryan Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

Fuschia Walker told us that she was in NYC auditioning for the film version of Little Shop of Horrors and the late, great casting director Vinnie Liff told her she wasn’t going to go further for Little Shop but she should audition for Dreamgirls. She had never heard of it, but her friends told her to learn “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and go to the audition. At the time, she was doing a show in Atlantic City and took the bus in on the day of the audition. She was sick that day and walked in and said, annoyed, “I’m tired and I don’t feel well. What do you want me to sing?” That sass, plus her amazing talent, got her the part.

Contrasting Fuschia, there was Kecia Lewis who actually coveted the role as soon as she saw the show. Her teacher at the High School of Performing Arts (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) told her she was right for the show and her friend got her a ticket when she was 16. She soon started auditioning. Sometimes she’d sing 8 measures and sometimes she’d be typed out, but she kept coming back. She wound up getting the phone number of Liff and would call once a month to say, “Hi! I’m your next Effie!” Finally, when she was 18, she got to audition for Bennett and Michael Peters.

After she sang “And I Am Telling You...”, Bennett asked her to “step, touch.” She didn’t know what he meant. He got up from the table, held her hand and step-touched with her. Then he told her to go faster, then he told her to add her hips. Bennett told her that was it and she went into the hallway where there was another young lady who auditioned. Vinnie came out and told them there was a decision and asked if they wanted to know now or later. The other young lady said “later,” but Kecia said “now.” Vinnie said, “Well, because the young lady who got it said ‘now,’ I’ll say it…Kecia, it’s you!” That night, she went to the theatre to start watching and learning the show, at just 18-years-old.

Sharon Catherine Brown had another experience. Rather than auditioning over and over again, she did one long all-day audition. She could have fit into different roles, so she wound up auditioning for all the female roles that day, but ended up being offered Effie, which she did all over the US and in Japan and never missed a show. I found this amazing clip of her doing the song “Move.” This is the song the group does at an early talent contest. They supposedly choreographed it in their basement so it’s supposed to have a lack of professionalism/rawness to it. I am obsessed with how aggressive and over-the-top Sharon is on the mini-dance in the middle of the song. So good!

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Donna McKechnie Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The night before Effies, we had another Michael Bennett–themed show with Donna McKechnie coming on to talk about this amazing video she put together with Doug Denoff and American Dance Machine. It’s a multi-person “The Music and The Mirror” from A Chorus Line using the orchestra tracks from the Original Broadway Cast recording. It was so great talking to the dancers who performed it and getting scoop from Donna about the creation of the dance.

Near the end, she has to do four sets of double pirouettes and asked Michael Bennett, “Can’t it be just three sets?” because she felt like she was going to collapse. Michael said “Perfect!” because he wanted the audience to feel like she was going to collapse. Yay? It’s such a perfect time for the video to come out because it’s about someone begging for the chance to perform again—basically what every artist is feeling.

Then I had a reunion of some amazing contestants from Stars Search, the talent contest that began in 1983. Rosie O’Donnell told us that she was doing her act in a comedy club on Long Island when a woman approached her and said she was Ed McMahon’s daughter, and then told her she was going to get her on Star Search. Rosie didn’t believe it until she got the call at her house (she was living with her dad at the time) asking her to come to L.A.!

They told her to bring two outfits to wear in case she won, which she did. But then she kept winning and had to get more and more clothes. Rosie kept winning each week, which was great, but that also meant she had to keep staying in L.A., where she didn’t know anyone and she didn’t have any money to buy clothes. The show gave her a per diem, which is really just to cover food, but she used it to buy her clothes for each week. (She would go to Esprit which was near her motel and try to find clothes that fit). She wound up losing the grand prize but it changed her career because all she had ever done was stand up in New York. The exposure on Star Search allowed her to get gigs all over the country and eventually led to her getting a role on the TV show Gimme a Break. After she did that TV show, she made another appearance on Star Search. Here it is.

I also talked to Michael Berresse and Scott Fowler, who were Broadway dancers and formed the group “Boys Back East” with their Broadway pals in the early 90s, and wound up winning the grand prize. They’re so amazing and daring. It’s relentless splits, layouts, and acrobatics and they always keep their positioning even though they only had one shot each show. So much pressure!

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Marty Thomas Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Then we had Marty Thomas who has since done Wicked and Xanadu on Broadway, but did Star Search when he was 12-years-old. He won against a 10-year-old girl—Britney Spears. When they tally the scores at the end, he thought he should wait for the result the way they do on Miss America, by having a plastic smile on his face the whole time. Britney wound up getting a good score, and he thought that meant he lost, so you can see his smile start fading. But the smile comes back in full force when he wins and he follows-through on the Miss America reaction by making sure he buries his face in his hands. Watch here.

First year male vocalist winner Sam Harris came on and told his amazing story, too, but you can see it in his one-man musical show that just went online. Get thee to BroadwayHD to watch it! Here’s a promo.

I also had Penny Mealing on the show, who was close friends with my brother, so I remember watching and loving all of her appearances back in the '80s. She sounded amazing every week—truly incredible. She didn’t win the grand prize, she wound up losing to Alyssa Guise (who’s also amazing). What I love is that Peggy said the show didn’t have the meanness of current reality shows. When she lost, she walked backstage and Alyssa immediately came up to her and comforted her by saying it was just the beginning of her career. Alyssa wound up being an amazing Deena in Dreamgirls with two of the Effies who did our show last week, Sharon Catherine Brown and Lillias White. Here she is with Arnetia Walker and Lillias.

Here’s Penny’s amazing performance of “And I Am Telling You...” and here’s her beautiful performance of “Home”. What’s even more impressive is that while she was singing it, she noticed a girl in the audience who looked so sweet and supportive that it made Penny start crying. So she was sounding this amazing through tears!

And finally, I have a live concert coming up this Sunday night, January 17, The amazing Kelli O’Hara is joining me at 8PM ET. You can get tix at TheSethConcertSeries.com, and you can get the concert I did with Alex Brightman on demand there as well. If you haven’t seen Kelli’s amazingness, watch this, then peace out!

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