Terri White on Her 54 Below Show, a New Album and the Roles She'd Love to Play
By Adam Hetrick
Terri White, who stopped the show in the recent Broadway revivals of Follies and Finian's Rainbow, returns to New York July 31 with a one-night-only engagement at 54 Below.
The showbiz veteran, who made her Broadway debut in the 1980 musical Barnum and shared a stage with Liza Minnelli in Stepping Out at Radio City, spoke with Playbill.com about the roles she'd love to play, her latest album, the ups and downs of show business and her new life with her wife Donna Barnett.
Welcome back to New York. You recently moved to L.A., correct?
Terri White: Yes! It's crazy. You leave, you think you've moved away, and here I am less than a year later! [Laughs].
When I first moved to New York, I became familiar with your performances at Rose's Turn, where you performed just feet away from your audience. Since then, you've made a Broadway comeback and played to large houses with Finian's Rainbow and Follies. What's the dynamic like, returning to an intimate space like 54 Below?
TW: When I perform, I always feel that I'm performing one-on-one, so that I feel like I'm speaking to each person individually through song. Being able to go through emotions – not everything is hunky-dory, and not everything is sad – being able to take people through a little bit of my lifetime and share in theirs. There are times during a song I see people in the audience nodding their heads like, "Yeah, I understand." That's the type of thing I like to portray.
One of my favorites is "Everything Must Change." I know you have a new show, but is it one of those songs you can't not sing?
TW: I still do it. It's kind of like my "New York, New York." If I don't do it, people always say, "You didn't do it!" I have a couple of staple songs and it's just appropriate, and I think it is every day that something changes. Even with gay marriage, it's another change. You can't stifle yourself and stay in one place. It's about progression, about things having changed.
You chart some deep emotional territory with that song. Is that something that has always come easy?
TW: I like to share my emotions. I take down the fourth wall. Especially with an act of your own, it is a personal time in which you share and get a response back from the audience, and whether it hurts or not - whether it's painful and I cry - it's a moment that we share.
The last time New York audiences saw you in a solo show was at Feinstein's. You've since taken the evening on the road. What can New Yorkers expect this time around?
TW: I've changed a few songs since Feinstein's. I feel like I've really cleaned up the show. This time it flows. I think I finally got it right.
You have a new album out as well.
TW: Yes, it's called "Upon Request." It's all songs that over the years that have been requested. I couldn't put them all on, or it would be about 12 CDs [laughs], but I really love what happened to this one. We put a lot of work into this.
There are some big songs on here. In addition to material fans have requested, it looks like you finally got to record some songs that you've been dying to share.
TW: They really are. One of my major dreams in my life has been to be a back-up singer, go figure, so I finally did! On my own album I did all the back-up vocals. And my wife Donna did back-up with me on "Mustang Sally," she sang, "Ride Sally Ride" with me. We had a lot of fun. I have incredible people working on it, including Bob Kulick, Doug Katsaros and Bobby Peaco.
Who are some of the songwriters you feel a connection with as a performer?
TW: Richard Maltby Jr., Kander and Ebb, Jule Styne, Marvin Hamlisch, especially during Stepping Out – also with Fred Ebb – but most of all, Cy Coleman, I think. He was just magic, simply magic. I shared a great moment with the technician and Cy one day at a lunch period during Barnum. They put a calliope on stage and he sat down and played all the tunes from the show like they would be done on the calliope. He sat there and played for about 20 minutes and then got up and said, "I'm done." It was amazing. That was how that man's mind worked – to change the rhythms – instead of playing it like it was in the show, he played it so it sounded like the circus. Then, during Barnum, that became the pre-music you heard going into the theatre. I will always treasure that time.
Tell me a bit about coming back to Broadway in Finian's Rainbow after two decades. What changed for you?
TW: After 20 years, coming back to Finian's Rainbow, posted on the wall backstage was "PD" and I'd never heard of PD. I thought, "What the hell is PD?" It's "personal day." I remember thinking, "You can just take days off? That's interesting..." I can't fathom that. [Laughs]. Personally, the show, that's my work and my personal days are my day off. So, I can't fathom thinking, "I'll just take Tuesday off!"
You also had the chance to reconnect with an audience eager to see you after a long absence.
TW: Opening night for Finian's Rainbow I thought my heart was going to bust out of my chest. It was pounding a mile a minute. After the number was done, I just started shaking and crying. This is what I worked for – to be on Broadway - to get that kind of response that you dream of. It was the ultimate dream come true. The same goes for Follies. Someone timed the "Mirror Number" applause the night before we closed, and it was about five minutes – it felt like a half-hour up there. I thought, "You know what? This is why I stayed in New York for so long. This is what my dream was." But it got to the point where three strikes you're out, personally.
TW: Barnum, you hear you're a shoe-in for a Tony nomination - not. Finian's Rainbow, they hyped me up, put me on People magazine, put my life story in the New York Times, did the whole she-bang - not. Follies, the whole thing, standing ovations, all those ads. Nomination - not. And I thought, "Apparently that's not good enough for the committee of sorts." That's fine. While I'm still young, I want to experience something else and that's why I went to L.A.
That departure has given you the chance to connect with fans across the country.
TW: Yes, I feel like I'm doing the Carol Channing tour! She became known for being on the road! I love being on the road and I love to travel. I'm connecting with so many people.
Are there roles you're still hungry to play?
TW: Mama Rose and Vera Charles.
You recently did the musical The Throwbacks at NYMF. That's a whirlwind rehearsal process. What was that like coming back to New York and diving in like that?
TW: It felt like it was a reunion, because I was working with people I had worked with years ago like Ed Dixon and Harvey Evans. It was absolutely amazing working together again. We rehearsed for only ten days and I had just finished doing Nunsense at the MUNY, then drove two days to get here and did the show. It's been a whirlwind, trust me. I just put one script away and then put the other script in front of me.
Have you seen any shows that you loved during your current time in New York?
TW: I got the chance to see The Trip to Bountiful, and to see Cicely Tyson do her magic on stage was brilliant. That was a million dollar lesson seeing her on stage. I loved Cinderella. Victoria Clark replaced Bernadette Peters in the L.A. company of Follies, so it was wonderful to see her.
The last time you were in New York full-time, you and Donna were married on the stage of the St. James Theatre shortly after New York passed gay marriage. Are you encouraged by the progress LGBT people continue to make since then?
TW: I'm ecstatic in one sense and confused in another. Until it becomes federal, really, it's a minor stepping stone. We're not there yet. But it is a step nonetheless, and I think the Pope's recent words are helping us move it along a little faster.
You've been open about your personal and professional ups and downs. In recent years it seems that life has made a turn for the better for you.
TW: Life is fantastic. My life has done a complete 180. I don't want to sound like I'm preaching of any sort, but the book "The Secret" saved me. It was hard to get into, especially with negative thoughts, having been on the street and so forth, but I was able to pound through it and take bits and pieces of it. Each day things got a little bit better, and that's how I got to Key West, because things got a little better. I happened to be in the right place at the right time for once, and that's where I met Donna, in Key West. I found somebody who's interested in what I do for the first time. As you well know, I'm the show and she's the biz, showbiz. We're a great team. Because of that - the support, you wake up happy.
What's coming up for you?
Terri White plays 54 Below July 31 at 7 PM. There is a $45-$55 cover and a $25 food and beverage minimum. For tickets, visit 54Below.com.
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