DIVA TALK: Chatting With Follies Star Terri White

By Andrew Gans
04 Nov 2011

White in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was the run there like?
White: You know, I was so scared when I found out I was doing it. I was going, "Geez. Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Linda Lavin, Elaine Paige… Oh my God, will I be able to step up with this? We're talking about major-leaguers here." And, it became a community of professionals. Everybody was very supportive. Everybody worked really, super hard… We were sweating bullets. We were sweating like crazy with the rehearsals for the tap number. Every day, two-and-a-half hours, every day. Even during previews, we'd have at least an hour rehearsal—unless it's a matinee they can't rehearse us. But, everybody pulled together—Flo [Lacey] and Colleen [Fitzpatrick]—it was just so supportive. People started hurting their knees and hurting their ankles, but they just kept on going. We called it the "walking wounded." [Laughs.] There's parts of our bodies we haven't used in a few years. [Laughs.] I started out as a dancer-singer. Well, now I'm a singer that dances. Okay, I can move very well. [Laughs.]…

Question: Both times I saw it—in DC and I saw it here—you brought the house down. What's that like for you getting that reception each night?
White: It's spectacular, and it's so good to be back. Sometimes it's overwhelming and I can't believe we are getting the response that we're getting on the number. Oh, God, it's thrilling. As far as when I'm looking out in the audience, it's Stella remembering those days, and probably she got that kind of response when she performed when she was younger and when she was in the Follies, so she is soaking in that moment of "Well, this is maybe my last time doing it, so it feels good. It feels good. I was dancing. I had to blow the dust off my tap shoes." The combination of it being real—reality, it's actually happening—it fulfills the character and myself at the same time.

Question: Do you feel an affinity for her? Stella has that line where she says how she and her husband were on the radio show, and now they're working in a business, and you had that long period between Broadway shows.
White: Exactly. I didn't do Broadway for 20 years. I did have things, and I can't complain. I worked with Liza Minnelli in Radio City, and the videos… I worked with Rue McClanahan in Nunsense I and Nunsense II and the films. All of that's wonderful, but I came here to be on Broadway, and, for me, I felt, similarly, a failure for not being a part of Broadway during that period of time, but I did accomplish other things while that was happening. And, then the world shot out from under my feet for a little while, but I'm back. [Laughs.]

Question: And, we're glad you're back.
White: Oh, I'm glad to be back, trust me. It feels so good. It's always been my dream, you know, to be on Broadway. Especially now, it's come in a full circle, and doubly strong. I had great moments when I did Barnum 30 years ago and Ain't Misbehavin' on Broadway. Those were the glorious times, so it's back. That's all I can say. [Laughs.] The feeling is back, and being in these kind of houses, you just look out there, and it's just so fulfilling.

White and Guy Davis in Finian's Rainbow.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: You did two musicals with Cy Coleman. I wonder what your memories of him are.
White: Unbelievable. His head was just full of music and notes. My favorite moment, though, is when he was doing the pre-music… the playing of the music in the theatre. When you walked in the theatre, you hear a calliope. It was just him on the stage and Otts [Munderloh] on the board—the sound board—with a calliope in front of him, and he just proceeded to play the entire score, the filler music for when we made our entrances and exits. And, so he was just sitting there, and there was a big old smile on his face, and his fingers were going. He didn't have any music in front of him, he just played, and he never stopped, and then when he was finally done, it gave him like five seconds to clear, he said, "I'm done." It was just me in the audience watching him do this. It was just the three of us. I will always treasure that moment.

Question: What show was this?
White: That was Barnum. And, my other show that I did with him was Welcome to the Club, and he turned and he said, "Baby, put some spice into it" [laughs] because I did a song called "A Piece of Cake" in Welcome to the Club with Samuel E. Wright.

Question: Your first show back, after an absence, was Finian's Rainbow. How did that come about after not being on Broadway…
White: Here again, I'm in Key West. At this point, I got a job… I didn't have a job at all for over a year-and-a-half. Things happened. I couldn't keep my apartment and everything else, so I had a rough time for a little while, and one night a friend of mine who just opened a club down in Key West set up that I was going to be down there in January. Well, they needed someone in October, so they said, "Would you come down?" Long story short, I said, "Let me check my schedule… Yeah, I'm there." I was in Key West for like three months when I got the call for Finian's Rainbow for Encores! I turned to Donna and said, "I can't go." She goes, "Of course you're going." I said, "No."… "Yes, you're going." I went and auditioned for Finian's on a Friday, and then Monday I found out that I got it, and so, I had just moved all of my stuff down to Key West. It never fails—you leave town, that's when they call you. You're in town for 20 years and they don't even think about you. [Laughs.] So, Encores!, and then it got picked up and went to Broadway. And, at that time, I was on a chorus contract because it was a specialty number, so we found out in May and [the producers] said, "We're going to start in June—late June." We didn't start in June. Well, we're driving around seeing family and everything else, and June turned into July, and July turned into August. During that period of time, I went from a chorus to a principal contract because they created the role of Dottie that wasn't in the original show. Most of the lines that I had were either Sharecropper 1 or Sharecropper 2 that they combined to make the character and added a couple lines here and there, so she's like the opening of the show. They added that whole thing. So, that was great. I'm proud Samuel French will have this role—Dottie. I'm the first one. [Laughs.] As well as I'm the first Stella to actually dance the whole number.

Question: Is that true?
White: Yeah. They always sing the beginning part and then when they get to the "Mirror, Mirror" part, she left the stage until when they do the counterpart. She would come on and sing that part while they're dancing—the mirror girls, the ghosts—and then the rest of the divas came out and sang the counterpart, but they would do like a kick line.