The night Broadway star Lillias White opened in the hit show “Hadestown,” her descent into Hell as the character Hermes sent the audience into a rapture.
Everybody hungry, everybody tired
Everybody slaves by the sweat of his brow
The wage is nothing and the work is hard
It’s a graveyard in Hadestown…
Rocca asked White, “What does it feel like when people go nuts like that?”
“Wow! It makes me full,” she replied. “It makes me very emotional. It demands of me that I get out there and give them my entire heart.”
White has been giving audiences her heart for over four decades, in shows like “Dreamgirls,” “Chicago,” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” She wasn’t the original actress in those roles, or in “Hadestown,” where she’s following in the formidable footsteps of Tony-winner André De Shields.
But White is the exemplar of the showbiz exhortation to “make it your own,” as when she performs in concert, taking ownership of the Barbra Streisand classic, “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” “It was a song that I mean from my heart when I sing it,” she said. “That you don’t have a right to make me feel bad or unhappy. Don’t get in my way of my joy!”
Lillias White performs “Don’t Rain On My Parade” at the 2002 Actors Fund Benefit:
Performances like that have earned White a place on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s celebrity path, which also honors legendary Brooklynites like Streisand, George Gershwin, Mae West and Larry King.
“Judge Judy! Judge Judy Sheindlin! Carole King!” she exclaimed. “Man, I’m in high cotton over here! This is where I grew up. This is where I was born and raised, and it’s a thrill.”
As for her own path, early on White’s mother, who worked as a domestic for Billie Holiday when she first came to New York, set her on the straight-and-narrow: “She just told me not to do like Billie Holiday did,” White said, “to stay away from drinking and drugs and, you know, to be careful if I was going to be in this business.”
As for what to do? She had a role model close by. “My aunt Lillias was a dancer with the June Taylor Dance Company that was on ‘The Jackie Gleason Show,'” she said.
“This was a very, very big deal in the sixties,” said Rocca.
“Yes, my Aunt Lillias was very fair. She wasn’t dark and beautiful, like me!”
The older Lillias encouraged her young niece to perform for the family. “So, they would put me up on my grandmother’s dining room table, and I would sing and dance for my family. I wanted to be a ballerina specifically.”
“Were you dancing on this table?”
“Yeah, I would dance, I would tap. I did Shirley Temple,” White said.
She described her parents’ marriage as tough: “My mother and father didn’t get along well. And I saw some things in my childhood that should have made me crazy or nasty or mean. But somehow, as the gods will it, the arts caught me. And they said: ‘Not you. You’re going to do this [indicating the stage]. You’re going to be happy!'”
After high school, choreographer Alvin Ailey hired her. She was 30 when she made her Broadway debut as the so-called world’s oldest woman in “Barnum.” And she’s barely stopped working since, performing in movies (like the Disney animated “Hercules”), in clubs, and on recordings.
But her portrayal as a prostitute in the musical “The Life” – a role she did originate – has a special place in White’s heart.
Lillias White performs “The Oldest Profession” in “The Life”:
“It was written with me in mind,” she said.
When she won the Tony, in 1997, she had family in the audience: “Yes, my mother was there. My two kids were there. My mother used to take us regularly to Radio City Music Hall when we were kids, and she’d bring big thermoses of hot chocolate and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. So, we’d wait on line, we’d be the first in. So, the night that I got the Tony, it was at Radio City Music Hall – don’t make me cry again! – it was such a full-circle moment. It was such a moment of: Oh, my God, look where I am!”
As much as this 71-year-old grandmother loves Broadway, she wants to see Black lives portrayed differently. “I want to see a love story about a Black man and a Black woman,” she said, “as opposed to a hard-luck, down-and-out story. There are too many stories about the crime in our neighborhoods. But I’d like to see a story about just plain ol’ Black folks who love each other.”
And who knows? Such a show might one day star Lillias White. As she told us, “My knees might ache a little bit, but I could still kick it!”
For more info:
- “Hadestown” at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City | Ticket info
- “Get Yourself Some Happy!” by Lillias White (Old Mill Road Records)
- Thanks to Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Karen Brenner.
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