The omission of Bill Condon from the list of directing Oscar nominees was a shock to the growing legions of Dreamgirls fans across North America. Condon's DreamWorks and Paramount-backed production, which won the best picture (musical or comedy) Golden Globe, also faced a crushing shutout in the best picture Oscar category. Although the film took eight Academy Award nominations, more than any other this year, and has now grossed in excess of $100m at the box office, Condon's achievements were evidently deemed insufficient to warrant major Oscar recognition.
Which is a surprise, bearing in mind the writing and directing challenges he faced and overcame in transferring the 1981 Broadway hit to the screen.
The stage musical, written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger and directed by Michael Bennett, was, says Condon, "the ultimate backstage musical. Everything happens on a stage or near a stage. I wanted to stay true to that in the film. What I learned from Chicago (for which he also wrote the screenplay) is that by staying theatrical, you can become cinematic."
But straight away Condon was faced with two dilemmas. How to keep stage performances dynamic and interesting on screen, and how to ready the audience for the moment when the characters start singing to each other offstage, which is about 40 minutes into the film.
To solve the first dilemma, he made sure that the narrative continued during the stage numbers. "The story couldn't stop for the songs. In the first scene of Dreamgirls, you meet seven characters and with the exception of Jimmy (Eddie Murphy's character), who dies, they are all there at the end. I couldn't afford to waste a moment and everything had to do double duty or triple duty."
As for the "book songs" - the numbers involving interaction between characters, which might have made contemporary audiences wriggle with discomfort - he decided to launch into them without any pretence.
"It starts with stage numbers, but my thought was to shine a light on the book songs rather than disguise it. Say, 'This is what this is: a work of theatre about theatrical performance.'"
Hence, when the book songs begin with Family, It's All Over and the show-stopping And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going, performed memorably by Jennifer Hudson, Condon played up the theatricality. "There was no way around it. The most famous songs - and the best songs - in Dreamgirls are book songs."
To reinforce that theatricality, Condon cast larger-than-life stage performers - megastar singer Beyonce Knowles, American Idol contestant Hudson, actors-with-music-careers Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy and experienced musical performers like Keith Robinson and Anika Noni Rose.
"The musical died when they cast Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg in Paint Your Wagon," he says. "I wanted people who can perform."
Selected Condon credits:
Kinsey (2004) - writer-director
Chicago (2002) - writer
Gods And Monsters (1998) - writer-director
Sister, Sister (1987) - writer-director
Strange Invaders (1983) - co-writer
Strange Behaviour (1981) - co-writer