The story for both the film and the original Broadway musical, is based heavily on the real life occurrences of the Motown recording group, The Supremes. (Later known as, "Diana Ross & The Supremes") Curtis Taylor Jr. represents Motown Founder Berry Gordy Jr. Both men worked in the automotive industry before focusing on music and implemented aspects of the automotive business into the music making process. They were also romantically involved with the lead singer of the most successful female group on their label (whom they themselves appointed, over the initial "powerhouse" voice of the group.) Also Effie's departure from the group and the reasons why, are for the most part true of the founding Supremes member Florence Ballard, who was known to have a much more powerful voice than Diana Ross.
Jamie Foxx initially declined to play Curtis Taylor Jr. because the salary offered was insufficient. Denzel Washington was offered the part after Foxx, but declined because he cannot sing. Once Beyoncé Knowles and Eddie Murphy were attached to the production, Foxx rethought his decision and accepted the role.
After the original stage production proved successful, the film version went through several incarnations. In the late 1980s Whitney Houston was considered for the role of Deena, but negotiations fell through when Houston insisted that Deena sing some of Effie's songs, specifically, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", as well. In the early 1990s, after the success of What's Love Got to Do with It (1993), Joel Schumacher was set to direct, with Lauryn Hill set to play Deena and Kelly Price to play Effie. However, after the box-office failure of several other musical biopics, the project was again shelved. After the success of Chicago (2002), the producers approached Bill Condon, who had long considered an adaptation his dream project.
Effie walks in with an album on "Rainbow Records," Martin Luther King's "Great March To Freedom", recorded in Detroit, June 23, 1963. This is one of the few real record covers in the movie; it was released as Gordy 906, a Motown label.
When Curtis tells the girls that they're going to be their own act, he says that he's gotten Jolly Jenkins to do their choreography. This is a reference to Cholly Atkins, the famous tap-dancer (part of the tap-dancing duo of Coles and Atkins), who did most of the choreography for The Supremes.
During the Christmas party scene, Teddy Campbell is listening outside the room where Deena, Curtis, Michelle, CC, Jimmy, and Lorrell are listening to the recording of "Patience." Curtis's Aunt Ethel tells Teddy to get back to the party. Teddy answers, "I'm waiting for Deena." This is a reference to the close friendship between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Loretta Devine, who plays the jazz singer in the wake scene, created the role of Lorrell Robinson in the original Broadway production of "Dreamgirls" in 1981. Actor Hinton Battle, who plays Curtis' aide Wayne, was also a replacement for the role of James "Thunder" Early in the original production.
The character "Effie" was originally created for Nell Carter in 1978 when the original stage show was in it's experimental stages as "Project Number 9." Audio tapes of Carter rehearsing numbers such as "One Night Only" still exist in bootleg form and are constantly recirculated.
In one scene, Curtis forces the Dreams to record "Heavy" as a riot rages outside in the streets of Detroit. This is a references to the 1967 Detroit riot, during which Motown's studios remained semi-operational.
In the scene where "The Dreams" stand in front of a huge replica of their first album entitled "Meet The Dreams", the cover art is an almost identical replica of The Supremes 1965 album called "More Hits by the Supremes". On the other hand, the photos of "The Dreams" on that cover are near identical poses from another Supremes album from 1966 called "The Supremes A Go-Go".
The original Broadway production of "Dreamgirls" opened at the Imperial Theater on December 20, 1981, ran for 1521 performances and was nominated for the 1982 Tony Awards for the Best Musical and Score and won for the Best Book of a Musical.
The film was originally planned to be a Warner Bros. release. In the early 2000s, DreamWorks was brought aboard as US distributor, with Warner Bros. initially retaining international rights. When the budget was revealed, Warner balked and left the film, to be replaced by Paramount Pictures. During pre-production, Viacom, parent of Paramount, purchased DreamWorks, making the film wholly owned by Paramount before it was released.
Obba Babatundé, who portrayed C.C. White in the original stage version, turned down an offer to audition for the role of Marty Madison because he disapproved of the changes the film adaptation made to the original musical.
When Jimmy Early asks his band mates "Who was the first singer to start wearing shiny clothes?", one responds "Little Richard." The responder was Jimmy's Piano player who came onstage to sit in for Jimmy when he first taught the Dreamettes the parts for "Fake your way to the top."
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the musical, James "Thunder" Early is never heard from or seen again after the breakdown during "I Meant You No Harm/The Rap", and here in the film it is specified that he dies of a (possibly intentional) heroin overdose.