Volume 76, Number 38 | February 14 -20, 2007

Photo by Rob Reale

Oscar-nominee Henry Krieger

Oscar dreaming

Songwriter Henry Krieger scores three Academy nominations for ‘Dreamgirls’

By Jerry Tallmer

Henry Krieger, a nice white middle-class boy who grew up first in White Plains, then in Ossining, New York, started cutting classes to go to the Apollo Theater on Harlem’s 125th Street when he was still in high school.

As a matter of fact, young Krieger wasn’t too fond of high school or college either — one year at American University, one semester at Columbia University, then vamoose. 

You can tie a string from the impressionable teenager at the Apollo Theater circa 1960 to the three Academy Award nominations which 47 years later have gone to three of the several dozen songs with music by Krieger throughout the “Dreamgirls” movie — a big Paramount/Dream Works production that, somewhat startlingly, received no Best Picture nomination of its own. 

For the past 25 of those 47 years, Henry Krieger has been a quiet, unassuming resident of the West Village. Still is. Before that, it was St. Mark’s Place.

No, he had not been tipped off as to his nominations before the general announcement, and is glad he wasn’t. “It would have taken the magic out of it,” he said over the phone from his apartment last week. “Or the torture.” Then, quickly: “Not for me — no torture for me, though. I’m happy all over. I hope everybody wins. Life is too short to get crazy.”

Is he going to be at the Oscars the night of February 25?

“When people asked me that, I always said: ‘Not unless I’m nominated.’  ”

Yes, he’s going.

It was also Henry Krieger who wrote the music — to book and lyrics by Tom Eyen — of Broadway’s 1981-’85 smash “Dreamgirls” directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett. None of those pieces were eligible for the Original Song category of the Oscars. The five 2007 Original Song nominees are:

‘I Need to Wake Up,” by Melissa Etheridge.

“Our Town,” by Randy Newman.

“Listen,” music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Scott Cutler and Anne Preven.

“Love You I Do,” music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Siedah Garrett (“the wonderful woman who co-wrote ‘Man in the Mirror’ with Michael Jackson”).

“Patience,” music by Henry Krieger, lyrics by Willie Reale (“founder of the 52nd Street Project, helping kids in the Clinton area, winner of a MacArthur [‘Genius’] Award; I’ve known him forever, have written at least a hundred songs with him”).

Henry Krieger has also known — did know — Tom Eyen forever. The 1970 creator of “The Dirtiest Show in Town” died in 1991. Long before that, in ’75, Eyen and Krieger put together “The Dirtiest Musical in Town” at the Truck & Warehouse Theater (now the New York Theater Workshop) across from La MaMa on East 4th Street. The show’s Nell Carter repeatedly brought down the house with “Can You See.” 

By the late 1970s, some five years after Michael Bennett had sent a skyrocket into the heavens with “A Chorus Line” at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, Eyen and Krieger and Nell Carter — all of whom were friends of “Chorus Line” scenic designer Robin Wagner — were, thanks to Joe Papp, workshopping a potential new musical at that same Public Theater, and --

You mean, Mr. Krieger, that “Dreamgirls” came out of an idea by you two guys — you and Eyen?

“That is correct. So we took that idea to Michael Bennett, played some things for him, and Michael said: ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ ”

The meticulous phrase “That is correct” had almost mathematical overtones, or undertones. 

“Music and mathematics go hand in hand,” said composer Krieger over the phone. “People who are musical often have a good head for figures and can very often remember telephone numbers, street addresses. A lot of surgeons are musicians on the side.

“You know what?” he said. “I look on music as a tableau vivant of the brain.” A tableau vivant often, for him — all his life — in sepia colors.

He was born in Manhattan on February 9, 1945, the son of Irna Schwarz Krieger, who is now 91, and real-estate advertising man Morton Krieger, “a sweet, lovely gentleman and good guy” who’s gone now.

“Oh, my dear. you’re just a kid,” is what Henry Krieger likes to say to his 30-year-old musical director. Not a kid is Krieger’s best friend, Rosie, a German shepherd mix, and the other prime entity in the “Dreamgirls” composer’s life is his “bicoastal partner” of the past 12 years — the father of a 19-year-old daughter, Krieger murmured, giving no names.

Should Henry Krieger win an Oscar on the big night, he knows whom he’ll thank first and foremost. It’s Bill Condon, director of Hollywood’s “Dreamgirls” (and before that of, among other motion pictures, a very different cup of tea called “Kinsey”). Condon is 52. A kid-plus, you might say.

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