DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winner and Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues Star Lillias White

By Andrew Gans
24 Aug 2012

Lillias White in Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues.
Photo by Jerry Lamonica

The play, which is set in a Cleveland, OH, psychiatric hospital/rehab facility where Big Maybelle spent the last years of her life, explores the singer's rise to fame and battle with drug addiction. Because very little has been written about her, Levine said he "created a narrative based on the dramatic flow and lyrics of the music. In that sense it's very much a 'blues opera,' and we let Maybelle tell her story through the blues she sings."

White, who was last on Broadway in a Tony-nominated turn as Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, the mother of the Nigerian activist and songwriter in the award-winning Fela!, said that she conducted as much research as possible but, "unfortunately, there's not a lot written about her—about her private life other than where she was born and where she traveled to to do her concerts and her recordings… There are no biographies or anything like that—even online. I've looked all over online, and there's really nothing." In fact, although a Wikipedia entry states Maybelle was survived by a daughter and several grandchildren, White said that information may not be true "because Paul tried to reach some of her family and to no avail. Nobody's ever come forward and said, 'I am a descendant of hers,' so I don't know about that."

Born Mabel Louise Smith in 1924, White said the singer was given her stage name "because she was a big girl." Maybelle, she added, was "a sensitive person, very loving. She loved music, she loved people—all kinds of people. She was an artist who was made to feel insecure because of the way she looked, and that had to do with her size and her color. So things were difficult for her because she was a woman of size—of girth—and a woman of color, who didn't exactly fit in, into the mold, of what the big-star singers looked like at that time."

White, whose own soaring voice has been one of the great gifts to the musical theatre over the past few decades, said she is not trying to mimic Maybelle's sound, but she is "putting some of her sound in, of course. Her voice is a very deep, gutsy, bluesy voice, and my voice is not naturally that. So I've had to get back with my vocal teacher Susan Eichhorn to make some adjustments in how I approach it vocally—technically." Her own vocal inspirations include Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Barbra Streisand, "all the Motown singers," Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight.