BWW Interviews: Lillias White, Appearing Soon at 54 Below, Talks Bway Roles, NYC Then and Now, and More
Since she arrived on Broadway in 1981 to take over as Joice Heth, the "oldest woman alive," in Barnum, Lillias White has been a part of some of Broadway's biggest-ever hits (Cats, Chicago) and flops (Carrie). Somewhere in between was the musical that won her Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards in 1987, The Life. And somewhere along the way White became a revered performer and one-of-a-kind talent.
This weekend White debuts her all-new cabaret, The Lillias White Effect, at 54 Below. Performances are Thursday at 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday at 8:30. White will reminisce about her life on and off stage and sing both her signature tunes and songs she hasn't performed in the past. Billy Stritch is the musical director for White's show.
In addition to Sonja, a hooker in The Life--the Cy Coleman musical set in the 1970s Times Square underworld--White's Broadway roles include Effie in Dreamgirls, scatting secretary Miss Jones in the Matthew Broderick revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and, most recently, Fela Kuti's mother in 2009's Fela!, for which she was nominated for a Tony. White won a Daytime Emmy Award for voicing the lead singer of Muppet girl group the Squirrelles on Sesame Street and has also received Obie and Audelco awards. And not far from where she grew up in Crown Heights, White has a star on the walk of fame--or rather, an engraved stone on Brooklyn's walk of fame, the Celebrity Path in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
White spoke with BroadwayWorld one day last week as she sipped coffee with honey at the 54 Below bar. Click here for information and tickets to her show.
Was this show your idea or someone else's?
I'm working with a young man [as director] named Will Nunziata. Will and Anthony Nunziata [his brother] have performed at 54 Below. I met him on opening night of the musical Disaster! We kind of locked eyes when we were on line for something--there was an energy between us. He introduced himself and said, "I'm a big fan, and one of my dreams is to do something creative with you." I had already booked the room for May 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but I didn't know what the show was going to be. So we started meeting, at a place called Vynl, to hash out what the show was going to be. I have a show that I've done called From Brooklyn to Broadway that tells a lot about growing up in Brooklyn and dancing on my grandmother's dining room table, but this show involves the history from a different point on. This show talks about my history in the theater moving forward from when I was growing up. It touches on some of that, but we're dealing with losing Michael Bennett, losing Michael Peters, the AIDS crisis that we had back in the '80s, and going forward. We've created a brand-new show in what's a brand-new venue for me. I've been here a couple of times to sing with other people, but I haven't done my own show here.
What will we hear you sing that you haven't sung for an audience before?
You're going to hear something from Mame. You're going to hear something written by Ann Hampton Callaway that I haven't done in a very long time. You're going to hear material from Cy Coleman that people may not have heard before. You're going to hear me do a medley of songs from Broadway shows that I haven't done yet but I'd like to do.
So what exactly is "the Lillias White effect"?
The feeling that people are left with when I get to them in a song. Sometimes it's a hug, sometimes people don't know why they're being emotional after hearing me. For instance, when I was doing How to Succeed on Broadway, I came out of the stage door one night and there was a woman bawling. She said, "You were just great, I had to wait and tell you that." I said, "Why are you crying?" and she said, "I don't know." Because [the finale] 'Brotherhood of Man' is a rousing number about being brotherly and sisterly to one another, it's not a down moment in the show. She didn't know, but she was just gushing. So that's the effect. It's the effect that people don't know exactly why they're feeling what they're feeling, but they're feeling something.
You're one of Broadway's living legends--you usually get a huge ovation before you even open your mouth on stage. What's that like?
Kind of cool, you know. It's pretty terrific. It's thrilling, and it's humbling to know that people feel that way about me and my work.
What performers had an impact on you when you were young?
I would see Leslie Uggams [on TV], and I wanted to be that. I used to imitate Shirley Temple; I loved her. I loved to watch Diana Sands, I thought she was a brilliant actress. I loved Natalie Wood, I must have seen everything she did. Diahann Carroll, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan. I'd listen to my 45's in the living room: Gladys Knight, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles. I grew up listening to different kinds of music.
What were your dreams when you were a child in Brooklyn?
Initially I wanted to be a nurse. I used to take care of people, take care of things, when I was a kid. My mother was always complaining I was always bringing home a stray. I remember bringing home a kitten that I found, literally, in the garbage on Eastern Parkway. It was tiny, the nose was scruffed, it was dirty, and somebody had just thrown it away. I took the cat home and my mother said, "Here comes Lillias with another animal. Why did you bring this home?" "Look at it, Mom." So I nursed the cat, and it grew up to be this beautiful, huge orange cat. It had paws like mittens. It was a special pedigree cat--I don't remember the name. So I'd taken in cats and dogs--and kids. Somebody would fall and I'd bandage them up. I was a caretaker. I came from a family of people who took care of people. My mother was a caretaker. My aunt took care of children in the neighborhood. My grandmother worked for the Swopes, the people who initiated some of the soap operas on ABC. She was a domestic. At one point my grandmother worked for Marilyn Monroe. My mother at one point in her life worked for Billie Holiday. So I thought I was going to be a nurse. But I always sang and dance, and I always spoke clearly, enunciated clearly--because that's what was demanded from me by my family. We weren't allowed to use "ebonics," we had to speak the king's English. It caught the attention of teachers in my elementary school, and consequently I was the announcer for a lot of events in the school. Singing was incidental--I wanted to be a ballerina. My mother couldn't really afford to send me [to classes], and during that time there were no black ballerinas.
Did you go to the theater?
I didn't see a lot of Broadway shows when I was a kid, but my mother would buy the albums. My mother used to take my brothers and me to Radio City Music Hall. We went three, four times a year. We'd come for the matinee, the first show, and we'd be the first ones there. This was before any of those places where you could order tickets, so you had to go there and stand on line. In the winter she'd bundle us up, she'd make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot chocolate in the thermos, and we'd stand on line. We'd be in the first or second row. Then we'd come out of there and we'd walk from Rockefeller Center down to 42nd Street and sometimes we'd go to Nedick's--hot dogs and that orange drink they had. I'm tellin' my age now! [laughs] And my mother would hold us close to her. We were kids, we didn't really know what we were looking at, but my mother kept the three of us close. It was seedy, it was gritty, it was dirty. As a young adult when I was going to college and I'd walk through Times Square, people were selling watches, and there were hookers walking around and pimp guys. It was totally different [from today]. But there was a soul to it, a rhythm to it. There was an excitement to Times Square that is gone. The excitement now is in the lights: "Ooh, look at the pretty lights." I'm not condoning hustling and selling your body, but it's been Disney-cized. The soul is not there.
You must have thought about those childhood trips through Times Square when you did The Life.
Doing The Life showed me how dangerous it really was. During The Life is when it started to get cleaned up. A number of us girls in the show went around in vans [to] places like the meatpacking district, where there was heavy, heavy prostitution going on. We didn't get out and walk, but we took a good look at it. There was a woman in the neighborhood that I knew who was in the life. She had a candy store in the neighborhood--she'd been out of the life for years and years. So I found out enough to develop the character, and I saw enough to know that I'd dodged a bullet. I was lucky that I had the right kind of upbringing and the right kind of goals and dreams that I didn't get caught up in that.
What do you remember about making your Broadway debut?
I remember the kindness, and the openness, and the help that I got from the stagehands. I fell in love with stagehands, because they kind of took me in and took care of me. I remember the sweetness of Terri White, the woman that I replaced in Barnum. She took me under her wing, she showed me around, she introduced me to everyone. And I found that there was a community in the theater that I didn't really know existed. I was in a theater company in college and we were very close, but I didn't expect the same kind of camaraderie when I got to the St. James Theatre. There's a lot of love in the theater. That's what I remember best: that I was really welcomed, and taken care of by Terri White, stagehands, Cy Coleman, Joe Layton, my dresser Virginia. That was a blessing.
And what about the notorious Carrie?
I was a standby for Miss Gardner, played by Darlene Love. I never went on because the show only lasted seven performances. I thought that it would be a huge hit, because people would be familiar with the movie and they would see the campiness of it and would enjoy the special effects. And the talent was exceptional. That little girl, Linzi Hateley, she was fabulous as Carrie. She's going to be here soon [Hateley is performing at 54 Below on May 27]. A cast full of remarkable talent, including Charlotte d'Amboise and Gene [Anthony Ray], who used to be on Fame. I thought people would flock to it. I didn't think about the reviewers who would kill it.
You've performed a cabaret show called My Guy Cy all around the world. Tell us about your relationship with Cy Coleman.
He was my friend, my mentor. He was tough, but he was brilliant. When I auditioned for Barnum, he and Joe Layton were sitting out in the house. I sang my audition song, and they said, "Okay. You know any circus skills?" I had done a production of Waiting for Godot in clown face and costume and I had learned how to juggle. So they gave me the beanbags and I started juggling. I hadn't done it in a while so they were falling. I looked out in the vast darkness of the theater and said, "It gets better." They laughed and said, "Don't worry about it--you got the job." On the spot. So I did Barnum--that's when I met him. But I had been singing one of his songs, "On the Other Side of the Tracks," in my little club show just out of college.
We got to be really great friends. He used to say to me, "Lillias White, you're a force of nature." I'm humbled by that. I'm not a person that says, "Yeah, I'm that." I can't do that because I see so much talent, so I don't assume that I'm the only one that's got something to give. In the years that I knew him, from 1981 until he passed, we had one fight. It was during tech for a show we were doing out in L.A. Everybody was tired, tech can be very grueling. I don't even remember what it was about. But that night I couldn't sleep, and he didn't sleep. When we saw each other, we just embraced and bawled: "Sorry" [imitates sobbing].
He and Joe Layton and Ira Gasman created the role of Sonja for me. After Barnum was over, Joe Layton put together this show called Rock 'n Roll! The First 5,000 Years. It was incredible--way ahead of its time, because it involved multimedia, choreography with wireless mikes, tearaway costumes, all these things. The critics panned it and it closed [in a week]. It's devastating when that happens. Joe and Cy said to me, "Don't worry, 'cause we're writing something. And we're writing something for you." That had never happened in my career before. It turned out to be great work for me as an actor--to lose myself. And to get this Sonja woman--this sultry, worn, haggard, but goldenhearted woman.
What have you been up to since Fela!?
I've been traveling a lot. I just came back from Tahiti. I was on the Playbill cruise, "Broadway on the High Seas." It was stupendous, fantastic, gorgeous, and I can't wait to do it again. We had a stellar cast, including Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, Liz Callaway, Christine Pedi, Lewis Black, Brian Stokes Mitchell. I did Fame the Musical in Australia. I took over for Darlene Love there, as the schoolteacher. I did an August Wilson piece, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, in L.A. at the Mark Taper Forum. The season before that, I was at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, California--the role of Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean [also by Wilson].
Is doing nonmusicals something new for you?
When I was coming up, in college, I did quite a few straight plays. I played Antigone, I did Vladimir in Waiting for Godot... I went to City College, and I was in the theater company called the Demi-Gods that was founded and directed by Joseph Walker, who wrote The River Niger, which won the Tony Award for Best Play.
Besides all your professional accomplishments, you've raised a family.
I have a son and a daughter, and they each have three children.
You don't look like a grandmother of six! Do you think any of your grandchildren will follow in your footsteps?
Maybe. My son's oldest daughter I think is going to be a fashionista. She loves to go shopping, she loves clothing. I'm often sending her these cute things that I find, and her mother says she likes to put them on and model. I have one grandson who could be a martial artist. He's still little--just 4 years old--but he's very flexible and he likes to dance and he spins around. My 10-year-old grandson is very musical; he loves to dance as well.
Are there still stones left unturned in your career?
Absolutely. I've been working with a young composer duo, Douglas Lyons and Ethan Pakchar. They are currently in the process of writing a show for me. We'll see how that all turns out. I am totally open and completely faithful that the best is yet to come for me.