DIVA TALK: Chatting With Follies Star Terri White

By Andrew Gans
November 4, 2011

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



TERRI WHITE
It's been some year for big-voiced Broadway favorite Terri White, who is currently stopping the show nightly as she belts (and taps) out a thrilling version of Stephen Sondheim's "Who's That Woman?" in the critically acclaimed revival of Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies at the Marquis Theatre. White, whose Broadway credits also include Barnum, Ain't Misbehavin', Welcome to the Club, Chicago and the recent revival of Finian's Rainbow, for which she was Drama Desk-nominated, also wed her manager, jewelry designer Donna Barnett, on the stage of the St. James Theatre following an evening performance of Hair this past July. White and Barnett were one of three couples who helped the Broadway community celebrate New York becoming the sixth state in the U.S. to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with the singing actress, who spoke about that July ceremony and her current role on Broadway with much candor and laughter; that interview follows.

Question: Before we get to Follies, I just want to say congratulations on your recent wedding.
Terri White: Thank you so much! It was so exciting to be a part of it.

Question: How did getting married on the stage come about?
White: [Laughs.] It was very fast. It was during rehearsals of Follies, and one of our dear friends, Myla Lerner, one of the producers on Hair, had a meeting, and they needed one more couple—a lesbian couple—to be a part of the event, and she goes, "I just happen to know somebody." The other two couples were involved with the theatre somehow, so she gave us a call on Wednesday, the week before all of this was supposed to happen… We scrambled together. Donna got a message saying that we had to enter the lottery… and it had to be in by noon on Friday, so she rushed and got that in, and they gave us a call… I believe Friday night, and told us that we won the lottery. We ran out after rehearsal on Saturday, bought our outfits, [laughs] and tried to get everything together, so by Sunday we had to get on line to get our license. That was the day—the 24th. We had to be down there by 7:30, and that was absolutely glorious. The emotion and the excitement and the pride of being a part of this in New York was overwhelming, actually. And, the support and how it was handled—it was handled brilliantly. It could've been a nightmare, but it wasn't. It was so well done, so well organized. You were in and out, basically. With a smile on their faces, they took you. If you weren't getting married that day, they gave you a private escort to go someplace else, to get your license so that you can do it another time. It was quite thrilling, and there was a lot of pride in all of it.

White and Donna Barnett celebrate their marriage onstage at the St. James Theatre
photo by Monica Simoes

Question: What was it like that night on the stage?
White: Oh, I had goose bumps the entire time. Good thing, actually, we were facing upstage because I didn't want them to see me crying through the whole thing. [Laughs.] Of course, once I finally collected myself, I had to turn around and mug… [Laughs.] Especially because it was Colman Domingo, who I did Chicago with at the Ambassador Theatre last year for like a month or so… that was thrilling to be a part and having him giving the ceremony. It was totally thrilling. Also, looking at the cast members, they were so into it. They were crying, they were laughing. It was just wonderful, and then you turn around and see the audience, and they were all there. They didn't have to stay. It was right after the bows. The show was over, but they all stayed. Just to look out and to see all of these wonderful faces applauding and smiling, it was just glorious. Just glorious.

Question: How long have you and Donna been together for?
White: It will be, actually, two years and eight months in July.

Question: Getting to Follies, how did this role come about for you?
White: [Laughs.] Actually, it was the first time I didn't really audition for a show. Usually, you have to go through the whole thing. Meet the director, meet everyone. I worked with Warren Carlyle in Finian's, so that was my one connection. They called me [and] I was actually doing a concert with Ron Raines of all people. He had just found out he had gotten Follies, and I said, "Oh, that's great! I heard about it." A few hours later, I got a phone call from my agent saying they want me to come in the next day to audition… [but I had] a concert in Key West… so they moved the audition. They sent me the music to learn it, and when I got back the following Monday, they set up an audition for me a week from Tuesday. Then, Wednesday I get a call saying can I come in on Friday for a work session? I turn to Donna and I say, "What the hell is a work session?" [Laughs.] I had never heard of anything like that, so I go into the room on Friday. I meet two people who I don't know...and they started plunking out the notes, and I said, "I already know it." So, we ran through it a couple of times, and they said, "Thank you." I said, "Don't you want to see me dance? I brought my tap shoes and everything." They said, "Oh, no. We know you can dance." So, the Monday before my audition, my agent calls me at 10:30 in the morning and says, "Your audition has been canceled." I'm going, "What the… wait a minute. I know I nailed it. What's wrong here?" He said, "Because you got the show!" I said, "Are you trying to give an old black woman a heart attack?" [Laughs.] So, that's my folly for Follies. [Laughs.]

Question: Had you ever worked at the Kennedy Center before?
White: Years and years ago… I actually did… I'm trying to count how many shows I did there. I did Roar of the Greasepaint, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Ain't Misbehavin', Barnum… so Follies was my fifth show there.

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.

White performs "Who's That Woman?"
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What's it like doing that number and looking around and seeing who else is dancing on the stage with you?
White: Oh, it's great just to see everyone—Elaine Paige and Bernadette and Jan and Colleen—it's just wonderful that we all just have a great time on stage during that number. And, especially because tap was my first thing I learned. Basically, my grandmother was taking care of me one day and I took my first step. [She] called my dad at work, he left work for the rest of the day to teach me a shuffle-step… My father was a hoofer. Tap dancing was my first introduction to the business, if you put it that way. So, to be able to do that and share that love of mine with all of these wonderful ladies is fantastic.

Question: How did the recording session for Follies go?
White: It went great. I love that studio. We recorded Finian's there, and [record producer Tommy Krasker] makes sure that you understand who the characters are. You just don't hear tunes and go, "That's cute, but what does it mean?" He sets it up just a little bit with some of the dialogue, so you know what's coming, and you'll be able to understand the full song, even if you hadn't seen the show. This way, you get more of a feel of the show. He's very good about that. And, Stephen was just grinning ear to ear. He was very excited about this. In fact, he came out after I finished doing the number—recording it—and said, "Terrific job, Terri" and I went, "Woo-hoo! That was from Stephen Sondheim!" [Laughs.]

Question: Did you get to work with Sondheim during rehearsals?
White: He was there from day one in Kennedy Center… not every day… but he was there a lot, both in Kennedy and here in New York.

Question: Did he offer you any advice?
White: Actually, one day he called in almost all the principals except for me, and I turned to Donna and said, "Is this a good thing or a bad thing?" And, opening night he came to my dressing room and he said, "Congratulations on your marriage. You must be very proud. And, second of all, the reason why I didn't call you in for notes was because it was perfect." [I was] so ecstatic, and I overdo it on the opening night and I hyper-extend my knee, so it's still trying to heal [laughs], but I guess I nailed what he wanted because Stella is really me in some ways. Literally, I learned the song in five minutes and I was off music in five minutes because I understood exactly what the lyrics are saying. Sometimes you strain really hard—"What is this supposed to mean?" You write a billion notes on the side of each line of the music to try and develop the song for yourself, but I listened to it and said, "Oh, that's a nice rhythm." I never heard the song before, and then I started looking at the lyrics and I said, "Oh, I got that part!" I just zipped right through it. It really became a part of me.

White on opening night
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Question: Is there any talk of the show extending past January?
White: You know what, after Finian's Rainbow when there was talk that we were going to move it because American Idiot was coming in, I'll believe it when I see it on paper. People are saying, "How could they close this show because it's making over a million dollars?" I'm going, "You know what, when we're moving and they give us the name of the theatre, I'll believe it." Until then, rumors are just that. They're rumors.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on this for right now?
White: There's a project that I was working on for the last four years called Holding On by Neil Klein, and it's a great piece that I'm excited about because we're actually going to, next year, have our first read-through of it and see what's going to happen with it. You know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I've been in many a project that all it was was a reading. But, I think this has a great punch to it, a great story to it. I'm also doing my club work. I'll be at Feinstein's in May—May 2 and 9—and Town Hall Nov. 14, so I'm doing bits and pieces here and there to keep my foot in the door so that people don't forget about me.

Question: Congratulations on everything. You're really terrific, and it's nice to see a happy ending to a story.
White: Yeah, you and me both! [Laughs.] I can't stop grinning, you know? It's overwhelming sometimes. It's just one thing and the next. It's not bad, it's all good. I'm actually walking up the stairs instead of standing on one and step down two, walk down three and step down or slide. It's all good. The marriage is good. I call Donna my lucky charm because ever since we've been together, it's only been up.

[For tickets to Follies, phone (877) 250-2929 or visit Ticketmaster.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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