DIVA TALK: Chatting with Purlie's Lillias White Plus Divas on Sondheim and News of Hines and Cook

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Purlie's Lillias White Plus Divas on Sondheim and News of Hines and Cook
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony Award winner Lillias White
Tony Award winner Lillias White

Two years ago — during the Funny Girl benefit concert for The Actors' Fund of America — Lillias White provided what may be the most exciting version of "Don't Rain On My Parade" I have ever heard. White's zesty, thrilling rendition was also the highlight of that star-studded evening, which boasted over a dozen Fanny Brices singing the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill tunes made famous by Barbra Streisand.

White's "Don't Rain On My Parade" was almost a gospel anthem, complete with a soaring climax that was greeted by a spontaneous standing ovation. One of the many things that makes White's singing so enjoyable — apart from the sheer power of her tone and her investment in each lyric — is her use of riffs. But unlike so many pop singers, White doesn't riff every note: She uses them sparingly, and in doing so, makes them all the more effective.

The singing actress, it should be noted, has a habit of stealing the show. White certainly did so in Cy Coleman's The Life, winning a Tony Award for her performance as down-and-out prostitute Sonja and her show stopping rendition of "The Oldest Profession." She also triumphed on Broadway in Barnum and Once on This Island as well as in the revivals of Dreamgirls and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, again bringing down the house with full-voiced versions of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" in the former and "Brotherhood of Man" in the latter.

This weekend (through April 3) White lends her numerous talents to the Encores! mounting of Purlie, playing Missy opposite the Purlie of Blair Underwood and the Lutiebelle of Anika Noni Rose. I had the chance to chat with the Tony Award-winning actress; that interview follows.

Question: This is the first Encores! production you've done — how has the rehearsal process been?
Lillias White: It's been fast and furious! [Laughs.]

Q: How did the role of Missy come about?
White: I don't really remember! [Laughs.] I just got a call that Purlie was being done. I was sent the script and was asked if I would be interested in participating.

Q: Had you ever been in a production of Purlie or seen the musical staged?
White: No, I'd never been in a production of it or seen it. I had read [Purlie Victorious], and I always thought it was a great play. I had heard the music, some recording or another that I encountered along the way, and I really loved Ossie Davis [Purlie is based on Davis' play Purlie Victorious, and he also co-wrote the book for the musical with Philip Rose and Peter Udell], and I just thought it was a great [work] he had written.

Q: Did you ever get a chance to meet or work with Davis?
White: I got to work with him a couple summers ago at SummerStage. We did a series of readings from Zora Neale Hurston at SummerStage in Central Park. It was a fabulous experience. He was always a gracious, beautiful man. He and Ruby [Dee] were a great pair.

Q: Tell me about the songs you'll be singing in Purlie.
White: I get to sing a couple of wonderful songs. One is called "Down Home" and points out the value of people who are living in the South, staying in the South as opposed to migrating up north for a so-called better life. And, the other song is called "He Can Do It," which is a song encouraging Lutiebelle's character to have faith in the guy that's she set her sights on and have faith that he can work things out for the better.

Q: How has it been working with the cast?
White: It's been wonderful. It's an absolutely exquisite cast. Everyone's working really hard — it's been a great experience just to meet some new people and work with Anika Noni Rose and Blair Underwood. It's a wonderful, wonderful group of people dedicated to making the project really fly well. It's a joy to do.

Q: One of my favorite performances of yours was your rendition of "Don't Rain On My Parade" at the Funny Girl benefit concert. What was that night like for you?
White: That night was very exciting of course, with so many people involved in the production, and it was great to be onstage with that sexy Peter Gallagher [who played Nick Arnstein]. It was the best stage kiss I've probably ever had.

Q: And, you also did, of course, the Dreamgirls concert. Tell me about that experience.
White: It was really indescribable because there was so much excitement in the air. It was right after 9/11, and the city needed healing, and I think we accomplished that in the form of that concert. It was a good healing for a lot of people. . . [It was also good] to remember how great that show was. . . I've not seen anything come down the pike lately that's comparable to [Dreamgirls] — nothing is like that show.

Q: This year we lost Cy Coleman, whose work you performed in Barnum and The Life. What was it like working with Coleman?
White: Cy was fun, and he made the work absolutely a treat to do. It was devastating losing him. He worked with everybody, so he had great stories to tell. Cy was a regular guy who had this gift. I used to marvel at his hands because his hands didn't look like a piano player's hands. He had these short, little ruddy-looking hands, and they just didn't look like a piano player's hands. [Laughs.] I was always amazed at his level of accuracy and the level of musicianship that he not only exhibited but he appreciated.

Q: You were involved in one of his last projects, Like Jazz. Anything happening with that at this point?
White: As far as we know, it's going to go on next season. . . It was in L.A., so it was a different arena, but I got to work with the great Patti Austin, and that was a big hoot. Cleavant Derricks was also in it. It was all new music, and I'm not sure that they knew exactly what to do with [the piece, but] hopefully we'll get a director who has a better idea of what he wants to do.

Q: Do you have a favorite Coleman song?
White: It would have to be "The Oldest Profession" [from The Life]. I've been singing Cy's stuff since the first time I was on Broadway. I was in Barnum, and that was my first Broadway show.

Q: I was looking through your theatre credits today, and I don't think I knew you were part of the Broadway company of Carrie.
White: I was the understudy for Miss Gardner. They had one evening called "Waiting in the Wings," and I got to do [the role] then, but I never went on [for Darlene Love] because the show didn't last long enough. . . There was some good music in that, and I thought it was quite campy and very original with great talent in it. At that time the input of the producers, in terms of marketing the show and pushing it, had a lot to do with the success of the show. I think if they had marketed it the right way and really promoted it, it could have lasted [longer].

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
White: I have a few things in the works — the Carnegie Hall production of South Pacific [co-starring Brian Stokes Mitchell and Reba McEntire]. I'm scheduled to do that in June, and I'm scheduled to be at Joe's Pub July 18-23 doing my birthday show.

Q: Last question: When people hear the name Lillias White, what would you like them to think?
White: I'd like them to think "love" . . . "love, joy, wow"!

[Purlie will play City Center, 130 West 56th Street, through April 3. Tickets are available by calling (212) 581-1212; visit www.nycitycenter.org for more information.]

In the program distributed at last week's all-star Stephen Sondheim salute, Children and Art, were reprints of birthday wishes sent to the legendary composer by a host of the theatre's leading ladies. I thought you'd enjoy reading a few of these letters, which follow.

from Barbara Cook
"Dear Stephen, I love being inside one of your songs and I love being near you even though you love putting me off balance."

from Judy Kuhn
"Having been a devoted fan and follower since seeing Sweeney Todd on Broadway, my dream (like any singing actor) was to be in one of your shows. Rarely does reality exceed a dream, but that is what happened when I had the privilege of playing 'Fosca' in Passion. That experience was, and I am sure will remain, the highlight of my professional life. It reminded me of why I do what I do. Thank you for the gifts you give all of us who do what we do. Wishing you all the best, and happy birthday!"

from Bernadette Peters
"Dearest Steve, What would I be if I couldn't sing your words and music? What would I have not learned about life? Your words teach me all the time; every time I sing them. They remind me of things I need to be reminded of in life. Thank you for this gift. And the gift of you! Happy, happy birthday!"

from Julia McKenzie
"Happy, happy birthday Steve! Your work has given me the most joyous moments of my career. Thank you forever. From me, Side by Side with April, Sally, The Witch, and Nellie Lovett."

from Donna Murphy
"Happy birthday, dear Steve! How can I ever thank you for the ways in which you have enriched my life: as an audience member, as a performer, as a human being. Your music and your words have cut to my heart and deepened it. The opportunity to work with you, to be in the room collaborating with you, is a dream fulfilled that resonates to infinity. Your brilliance, integrity, skill, and talent inspire me on a daily basis, and I know that I am hardly alone in that claim. Beyond that, the gift of support and encouragement that you have blessed so many with, is yet another invaluable legacy which is meaningful in ways that will go on and on. Shawn and I wish you the happiest of birthdays. It is with great joy that we celebrate YOU!" from Tonya Pinkins
"Dear Steve, I remember looking in your cabinet full of empty files. You said it was for the songs you were going to write. I have looked forward to every one of them. Continued blessings. May you live long enough to know why you were born. We all do."

[Children and Art benefited Young Playwrights Inc., which was founded by Sondheim. Visit www.youngplaywrights.org for more information.]

Mimi Hines, recently seen in the Reprise! mounting of Pippin, is currently making her Feinstein's at the Regency debut. The veteran singer actress is celebrating the centenary of the late composer July Styne as well as the 40th anniversary of her starring role in the original Broadway production of Styne's Funny Girl; Hines succeeded the show's original star, Barbra Streisand. In her Feinstein's engagement through April 2, Hines is offering her renditions of "I'm the Greatest Star," "It's Been a Long, Long Time," "No Time At All," "And I Was Beautiful," "I Want to Be Seen with You Tonight," "People," "Cornet Man," "Don't Rain On My Parade," "You Are Woman," "Who Are You Now?," "Private Schwartz," "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Yesterday I Heard the Rain" and "My Shining Hour." Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street; call (212) 339-4095 for reservations.

The summer cabaret series at Chicago’s Ravinia Festival has been announced. Those taking part in “Martinis at the Martin” include Tony Award winners Betty Buckley and Barbara Cook, Golda's Balcony star Tovah Feldshuh, cabaret veteran Wesla Whitfield and singer Sylvia McNair. Whitfield will kick off the annual series, which plays the Ravinia's Martin Theatre, June 8 at 8 PM. Cook will offer performances June 19 (4:30 PM) and 20 (8 PM), and she will be followed by McNair, who will present a Harold Arlen tribute July 10 at 4:30 PM. Feldshuh will offer Tovah: Out of Her Mind! Aug. 14 (4:30 PM) and 15 (8 PM), and Tony winner Buckley will bring her acclaimed evening of Smoke to the Ravinia Aug. 28 (4:30 PM) and 29 (8 PM). The Ravinia theatres are located in Highland Park, IL; for more information, go to www.ravinia.org.

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

Lillias White (l.) and Anika Noni Rose in a scene from the Encores! production of <i>Purlie</i>
Lillias White (l.) and Anika Noni Rose in a scene from the Encores! production of Purlie Photo by Joan Marcus
Today’s Most Popular News: