THEATER | Original cast member keeps “Dreamgirls” alive

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Milton Craig Nealy’s Broadway show career began with the original production of Dreamgirls, which debuted on the Great White Way in 1981. Almost 30 years later, Nealy is starring in a touring revival of the Tony-winning musical, which makes a stop at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis January 12-17. Nealy also performed in the 1987 revival of Dreamgirls, which toured the country and then returned to Broadway.

Originally from Chicago, the career of this triple threat (singer, dancer and actor) has consisted mostly of Broadway shows and tours of shows that started out or ended up on Broadway, including Caroline, or Change, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Full Monty. In a phone conversation with the MSR from his New York City home, Nealy (MCN) recounted his long career and Dreamgirls’ huge part in it.

MSR: Give us the short story about your life and performing career.

MCN: I got into [show] business through dancing [and] singing in nightclubs [in Chicago]… Originally, I wanted to be a recording artist… I wanted to sing.
…I went off to L.A.; I did a film called The Blues Brothers… I didn’t get credit in the film; I danced in the film. The dancers didn’t get credit… I was planning to stay in L.A., but I got a call to come back to Chicago to record a radio commercial for McDonald’s. And while I was back in Chicago I auditioned for Ain’t Misbehavin’ and another play, Evita… I got both of them, and I chose Ain’t Misbehavin’ because it had more singing.

Then, when I was finished with that tour, I came to New York to audition for Dreamgirls. And then everything kept me in New York: I ended up staying in New York, and I’ve been there ever since.

MSR: Let’s talk about your three times playing in Dreamgirls: Who did/do you play in each production?

MCN: In the original Broadway production, I was what is called a “swing dancer.” It was like an understudy: I was responsible for the entire male ensemble as well as some of the principal characters. So I was responsible for about 14 different roles in that original Broadway production. And then in later productions, as we went on tour, I started doing some of the roles, and not that swinging…

In the original production, there was one male swing and one female swing, and I think there were about 33 people in the cast. And so you can imagine: In a big cast like that, there’s never going to be just one person out. There’s always going to be two or three people who are out… You end up having to figure out if this person has lines in a scene, then you have to be that person. If this other person doesn’t, then that person has to disappear. You have to figure that out between you and the stage manager…

So it was crazy. I remember on opening night…one of the guys hurt himself very badly and could not dance. Fortunately for him, he didn’t miss opening night; he had other things in the show that he did. So I did all his dancing, and he did other parts of his role. So we both got a chance to be on for opening night. But I was just over the moon, because I did not expect to be on for opening night; so that was fantastic.

So from then on, I think I was on for about six months – he had really damaged his ankle – so I was on for him for about six months, as well as when other people were out; you had to cover the other people as well. So that was really an experience!

In fact, the role that I’m doing now, the role of Marty, that was the first principal [role I covered in the original production].

…In the ’87 revival, I was doing the role of Wayne and also covering James “Thunder” Early and the role of Curtis. But my main character was Wayne; I wasn’t the swing in that one. So I was responsible for [covering] two of the principal [roles], and then I had my own role as well. So that was a little easier.

[In the current production] I play Marty Madison, who is the manager of James “Thunder” Early. Nowadays, people have seen the movie, so we talk in terms of the movie: It’s the Eddie Murphy role, the [Early] role. I play the Danny Glover role, Eddie Murphy’s manager in the film. That’s how people kind of recognize who you’re talking about now.

MSR: Why do you keep coming back to this play?

MCN: First of all, I just love it. I love the play. I think the story is just a wonderful story …

And I’ve remained friends with the music composer, Henry Krieger… And whenever something comes along, [like] a new production [of Dreamgirls], he’ll call me or call my agent and say, “Listen, what are you doing? There’s a new production of Dreamgirls. Are you interested?” I usually say yes unless I’m doing something else, because I love it…

In fact, I’ve been called into other productions of it [when] somebody gets sick. Three or four years ago, in Philadelphia, they had some terrible, horrible flu going through the company and the guy who was playing Marty got sick and had to leave. I was in New York, and I jumped on a train the next day and I was in the production the next day, because one of the girls in the show knew me and gave them my name and said, “He’s done it; he can jump right in without rehearsal.”

…And while I was there, this flu kept raging on and I ended up for three nights going on for Jimmy Early. The guy who played Jimmy Early got sick, and they didn’t have an understudy.

MSR: Any final words for the Twin Cities audience?

MCN: I just want people to come out and enjoy themselves and have a great time!

Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to sbooker@spokesman-re corder.com.