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INTERVIEW: Big Maybelle's Lillias White Has a Right to Sing the Blues

The Tony Award-winning star tells the truth about her new show about the late, great soul singer at the Bay Street Theatre. logo
Lillias White in
Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues
(© Jerry Lamonica)
While the singer Mabel Louise Smith -- aka Big Maybelle -- may not be as famous to the general public as many of her contemporaries, she was a popular and talented vocalist who first recorded "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" -- before Jerry Lee Lewis -- and had a chart-topping hit in 1956 with "Candy."

Arguably, there is no better actress to play Maybelle -- who died tragically in 1972 at age 47 -- than Tony Award winner Lillias White, who is rising to the challenge in Paul Levine's Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues, now in a limited run at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island before an expected New York City transfer. TheaterMania recently spoke to White about the show.

THEATERMANIA: Did you know much about Big Maybelle before you got involved with the show?
LILLIAS WHITE: I didn't know anything about her, but I was familiar with some of her music. Paul Levin brought me the script when I was in Ventura, performing The Best Is Yet to Come, and asked me to do the workshop. I thought there was the potential for a great show, especially since she recorded a lot of great music, and the few pieces of her live performances I saw made me want to jump in and give it a shot. But I still think there is a lot for me to learn about her.

TM: Other than her music, what did you relate to in Maybelle's story?
LW: Like lots of other women, including me, Maybelle struggled with her weight. She was a big girl - she talks about that in the play and even jokes about it. But it was a big issue for her, especially since she was diabetic. Fortunately, she grew into being comfortable with her size and was able to gain self-confidence as she grew older.

TM: You've played another famous singer, Dinah Washington, in Dinah Was. Is this show easier or harder to do?
LW: It's not easier than Dinah Was. It's just another great story about an interesting and compelling artist. And it's not difficult to play someone who is passionate about her life. And while there is a lot of singing, I'm not scared by it. I don't scare easily, and I don't have the luxury of feeling fear!

TM: Do you have a favorite song in the show?
LW: Right now, my favorite is the encore, called "I'm Getting Along All Right," about a woman who is left by her man on a Friday and makes new connections by Monday. It's kind of a nice way to say "kiss my butt, but I got this." But I am sure audiences will find favorites of their own. Actually, my dream is to have the whole show recorded and have the CD win a Grammy Award.

TM: Do you think it's easier starting this show at Bay Street than in New York?
LW: Bay Street is a beautiful theater and I love being here, but I've found it doesn't really make life easier to start out of town. Every show is still a lot of work, and there are a lot of components to put together in a short time. I think maybe there's just a little less background noise.

TM: How do you choose your parts?
LW: It depends on what the part is, but usually I go by my gut reaction. My gut has been right 99.9 percent of time, so if I trust it, it turns out okay. Of course, there have been times in the past I wanted to do a particular show, and I didn't get it, and I later learned that so much bullshit went on with that production it was as if God was moving me in the right direction before I got into trouble.

TM: Is there someone you turn to for career advice?
LW: I usually talk to my mother about stuff, although she's not as with it as she used to be these days. I remember we talked at length about me doing The Life, because I was torn about doing it, especially because my kids were so young. I told my mom about the show, and all she asked me was "Who is writing the music?" When I told her it was Cy Coleman, it was a done deal for her. And not only did I win the Tony Award, but that show began a long love affair with Cy Coleman and my family.

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