Lillias White
Lillias White
Lillias White is having one of the busiest summers of her life! The Tony Award-winning star spent six weeks in Ventura, California co-starring in the Cy Coleman revue The Best Is Yet to Come, and has recently returned home to New York to prepare a three-night stand of her new cabaret show at the Triad as part of the Just a Piano series on Mondays, September 14, 21, and 28. She'll also star in the new Broadway musical Fela! as Fumilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, the well-known activist and mother of famed Afrobeat founder Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and appear in Chance and Chemistry: A Centennial Celebration of Frank Loesser, a benefit for the Actors' Fund on October 26 at the Minskoff Theatre. TheaterMania recently sat down to talk with White about some of these projects, her recollections of starring in Dreamgirls, and her future career goals.

THEATERMANIA: I've seen you do a lot of cabaret acts in a lot of different venues over the years and you're always so comfortable in these small intimate rooms, even though you're such a larger-than-life personality. Why is that?
LILLIAS WHITE: I enjoy cabaret, because I enjoy being able see people's faces and being able to look into their eyes and hearing them when they are moved -- to hear them sniffle a little bit when they get emotionally involved in what I'm doing or singing or saying. And it just feels cozy to me. When I have an audience in a room like the Triad, it feels like having folks in my living room. And I don't have a lot of company at home because I'm always working, so when I get home I'm peopled out and I just want to close my door.

TM: You tend to mix it up a lot in your shows, musical style-wise. What can we expect to hear at the Triad?
LW: We'll do "Human" by the Human League, and "At Seventeen" by Janis Ian, which are two audience favorites. I do a song written by my musical director, Timothy Graphenreed, called "Storm" because people always love that song. I always like do a calypso something or other where the audience has to "ooh" and "ah." And people like to hear me do "I Am Changing" from Dreamgirls. And we're going to do a Michael Jackson tune -- just to say how much he is missed and what a tragedy it is to have him go away from us as soon as he did. We've got to think about our lives and how lucky we are to be here. And, of course, there will be a couple of new songs.

TM: Next month, you begin starring in the musical Fela! on Broadway, in which you're playing his mother! How did this job come about?
LW: I auditioned, just like a lot of other well-known people did. I heard about the show last summer, and while I didn't see it then, a lot of people I know went to see it and they told me how phenomenal it was. And I've always loved the music of Fela, so I just went for it! I'm so excited to work with Bill T. Jones. It happens that he's the brother of a really good friend of mine, Rhodessa Jones, who is another phenomenal talent. I think it's a great show for everybody to come and see and get not only the thrill of the dancing and the music, but to hear the story of this man who was a great musician and who loved his country and wanted to do the best for it.

TM: Is there a certain challenge to playing a real-life figure like Fumilayo?
LW Yes, there's a challenge for me in finding as much as I can about her and then making the character as real as possible. One of the things that I really enjoyed about playing Dinah Washington in Dinah Was was that I found out a lot of things about her I hadn't known, and by doing the show, I met people who actually knew her. I really tried to put myself in her shoes and in that time in our country, when Dinah was not allowed to stay in the hotels that she was playing in because of her color! In the end, though, it's just about being in the moment and being honest.

TM: Now, you're a mother and a grandmother. Will that help in this portrayal?
LW: I do know a few things about being a mother. Being a mother is not as easy as it looks, no matter what, and being a mother in this business is no joke. For a good amount of the time I've worked, I was a single parent -- and when I look back, I just thank God for the help that I've gotten along the way. I also thank the people who have not helped me, because it made me stronger and wiser. Sometimes, I look back and wonder how I was able to have a career in this business and raise my kids. And my kids are nice human beings!

TM: You starred on Broadway in Dreamgirls as Effie White. Do you have any advice for Moya Angela, who's playing Effie in the new national tour, or any of the future Effiies of this world?
LW: Drink lots of water, say your prayers, and don't let Effie kick your ass -- because she can.

TM: Was Effie the hardest part you ever did?
LW: It was one of the hardest, because she's non-stop and very emotional. You can't just get on the stage and sing "and I am telling you, I'm not going nowhere" You've got to put your heart, your soul, and your guts in that song, and if you're not doing that, the audience knows. There were times when I first took over the role from Jennifer Holliday when, at the end of that song, they had to really come scoop me up on stage and take me to my dressing room.

TM: You've done so much already, but are there still long-term career goals?
LW: I really want to do Mame! "Jerry, do you hear me Jerry?" I'd also like to do a musical version of The Owl and the Pussycat. Maybe I'm too old to play the Pussycat, but I could direct it. I'd like to see a revival of The Life. And I really want to do a dramatic part on Broadway, something that I can dig my teeth into and show everyone the other side of Lillias White..