There’s a palpable sense of energy that radiates from Lillias White even when she is standing still, and when you mix that energy with her gifts as an actor and singer—including that explosion of voice—thrilling moments ensue.
A Tony winner for her performance in The Life, White has a gift for the comedic, but is equally wonderful with the dramatic. She also starred on Broadway in Barnum, Dreamgirls, Cats, Once On This Island, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Chicago, and Fela!, provided the voice for the muse Calliope in the 1997 Disney hit Hercules, and appeared Off-Broadway in Texas in Paris; While I Yet Live; The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman; Love, Loss, and What I Wore; Crowns; Dinah Was; and Romance in Hard Times. Possessing one of the most phenomenal belts in the business, one of the many reasons that makes White's singing so enjoyable—apart from the sheer power of her tone and her investment in each lyric—is her skillful use of riffs. Unlike so many of today's pop singers, however, White doesn't riff every other note; she uses them sparingly, and in doing so, makes her interpretations that much more effective. Music simply lives within her, and how lucky we are that she has shared it with audiences for decades.
As Broadway remains temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed like a great time to look back at the career of this stellar artist.
"Mama Will Provide" from Once On This Island
In January 1991, just a few months after Once On This Island had opened, White stepped into the role of Asaka in the Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical that was nominated for eight Tony Awards. White and fellow Tony winner LaChanze were featured at the Tony ceremony that season, with White bringing a compelling joy to "Mama Will Provide" —just watch how the co-stars revel in each other's talents before White belts out a high F.
"Brotherhood of Man" from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
White was the undisputed vocal highlight of the 1995 Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, starring Matthew Broderick. She nightly brought down the house with her full-voiced, jazz-tinged version of "Brotherhood of Man," which she had the chance to preserve on the 1995 Tony Awards.
"The Oldest Profession" from The Life
White won her Tony for her performance as down-and-out prostitute Sonja in the 1997 Tony-nominated Cy Coleman musical The Life, where she stopped the show with "The Oldest Profession." Here, White, accompanied by composer Coleman, thrillingly belts out the song before the musical arrived on Broadway.
"My Body" from The Life
At the 1997 Tony Awards, White joined her costars to perform a rousing version of the musical's anthem, "My Body." Listen to the way White's voice soars in all of her solo moments.
"I Wanna Be Loved" from Dinah Was
In 1998 White stepped into the role of R&B/blues singer Dinah Washington in the Off-Broadway musical Dinah Was at the Gramercy Theatre. White brought her inimitable voice and superb comic timing to the demanding role, performing such tunes as "What a Difference a Day Makes," "I Won't Cry Anymore," "This Bitter Earth," and "I Wanna Be Loved," which she performs below on The Rosie O'Donnell Show.
"Blue Moon" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
White joined the Boston Pops for this exceptional take on the Rodgers and Hart ballad. Her interpretation of the American standard is lush and overflowing with life.
"Move" from Dreamgirls
In 2001, just a few weeks after the tragic events of September 11, the Broadway community came together for the 20th anniversary benefit concert of Tom Eyen and Henry Kreiger’s Dreamgirls to benefit The Actors Fund. The cast was led by White (who starred as Effie in the musical's national tour and subsequently on Broadway), Audra McDonald, and Heather Headley, who all dazzled. In fact, what was so enjoyable about the evening was watching three women who are so different from each other, both in acting and vocal styles, shine. White's versions of “One Night Only” and “I Am Changing” were two of the highlights of the night, while her “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was also powerfully and fiercely sung. Below, the Tony-winning trio of White, McDonald, and Headley perform "Move" on The Rosie O'Donnell Show.
"Don't Rain on My Parade" from Funny Girl
At the 2002 Funny Girl benefit concert for The Actors Fund, White again brought down the house with her extraordinary rendition of "Don't Rain on My Parade," which caused the sold-out crowd to spontaneously leap to its feet. Her version of "Don't Rain On My Parade"—the best this writer has ever heard in concert— induced goosebumps with its soaring climaxes and exceptional riffs.
"Bali H'ai" from South Pacific
In June 2005 White played Bloody Mary in a concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific at Carnegie Hall that also featured Grammy winner Reba McEntire as Nellie Forbush and Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell as Emile de Becque. White's silky smooth renditions of "Bali H'ai" and "Happy Talk" were two of the many highlights of the evening, which was filmed and subsequently broadcast on PBS; watch her take on the former below.
"Rain" from Fela!
White was most recently on Broadway in 2009 in the Tony-nominated musical Fela!, based on the life and music of groundbreaking African composer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. White was Tony-nominated for her performance as Fela's mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti; get a glimpse of her dynamic work in the video below.
"You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel
As emotionally powerful as it gets. From World AIDS Day in 2009.
"It Started With a Dream" from Pamela's First Musical
In October 2013 at NYU Skirball, White, who was backed by Alison Cimmet, Constantine Germanacos, Sydney James Harcourt, Leah Horowitz, Sean Allan Krill, Kelly McCormick, and Stephanie Umoh, performed a superb version of "It Started With a Dream" from Wendy Wasserstein, David Zippel, and Cy Coleman's Pamela's First Musical.
"Natural Woman" by Carole King
Three vocal powerhouses—White, Tony winner Jessie Mueller, and Keala Settle—joined forces for this pop standard at the Concert for America. Hope this performance, a breathtaking intertwining of unbridled talent, brings you some joy—it certainly did for this writer.