Henry Krieger has been there from the beginning.
The “Dreamgirls” composer was there on opening night (Dec. 20, 1981), along with director Michael Bennett and lyricist-book writer Tom Eyen, when the show had its world premiere on Broadway.
He was there in the initial movie afterglow when Disney and Columbia expressed strong interest and when the project went into turnaround and producer David Geffen first looked at Eyen’s script.
And Krieger was there in the 1990s when “Camp” director Todd Graff had his go at the script and Warners later brought in Joel Schumacher to direct a screenplay by Tina Andrews, who had just written a Frankie Lymon biopic, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” which failed at the box office. Suddenly, no studio wanted to put big bucks in another showbiz tuner.
During all the travails, both Eyen and Bennett died. Only Krieger remains.
Not that it has ever been his life ambition to see “Dreamgirls” on the screen. “I don’t follow the beat-to-beat-to-beat,” Krieger says of the long-gestating stage-to-screen transfer. “I’m more insular. I wait until I have something that can be put in front of me and I can read. It sounds boring, but it is true.”
Back in the 1970s, Krieger had his first go-around with career disappointment when producer Robert Stigwood was ready to OK a London production of Krieger’s and Eyen’s first tuner, “The Dirtiest Musical,” with Nell Carter.
“The day the papers were supposed to be signed, Stigwood pulled out,” Krieger recalls. “I was young in the business. That threw me. It was shocking.”
Now it’s different. “I don’t let those things get me crazy. It works both ways: If things are over-the-top great, you have to take a deep breath, too. You have to build those muscles to take care of yourself when things are not what you want — or if they are way beyond expectations. We have to be balanced.”
Krieger has had more than two decades to achieve equilibrium with “Dreamgirls,” and now that the show finally, finally comes to the screen courtesy of director-screenwriter Bill Condon and Paramount Pictures, the composer can say, “It is full circle, and just incredible that 25 years ago everyone involved with this show had a really, really indelible life experience.
“For it now to be realized as a film by someone like Bill Condon, it means it will reach a couple of generations that missed the stage musical.”
“Dreamgirls” was the first full-blown, successful stage musical about African-Americans coming into their own in the entertainment business. “That was especially satisfying for us,” Krieger says, referring to himself, Eyen and Bennett.
He’s seen the $70 million film twice. “The tears started coming,” he says of the first time. “I don’t get too excited about anything. But when I do, I do — and then head for the hills! Let’s call it the mirror of manic depressive. You try not to get too manic.”
Krieger has written four new songs for the film, meaning he could conceivably be up for an Oscar. Or, as he puts it, “I could be best-dressed composer seen in a parking lot somewhere.”
Even though “Dreamgirls” took more than two decades to get to the screen, Krieger refuses to begrudge the process.
“Bill Condon is so right, and Beyonce is perfect for Deena. We didn’t necessarily have a performer like her before,” he adds. “We might have liked to do the film 10 or 20 years ago, but what if it wasn’t any good? You have to trust the big picture sometimes.”