Nobody, but nobody, stops a show like Lillias White. In a Broadway career that has spanned more than 40 years, she has poured her thrilling voice into a river of superpowered musical numbers: “Thank God I’m Old” in Barnum, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls, “Mama Will Provide” in Once on This Island, “Memory” in Cats, “Brotherhood of Man” in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, “When You’re Good to Mama” in Chicago, “Rain” in Fela!—and, of course, “The Oldest Profession” in The Life, for which she won a 1997 Tony Award. Revered by audiences, critics and fellow performers alike, White returns to the Broadway stage this month as prison matron Mama Morton in the long-running Chicago, a role she first played in 2006. Warm and personable even via FaceTime, she chatted with us from backstage during her final week of rehearsals for the production.
Thank you for taking this time to talk, I know you’re on a dinner break.
I'm eating my dinner as I talk to you. Is that all right? It has these components that you put together to make your meals happen. I hope it tastes good because it's a thing to do here to put this together.
Is it a ramen-type thing? It looks tasty.
[She tries it.] It's kinda salty. And the chicken is tough. Not enough broth.
Well then, I take back my compliment. It looks bad!
Okay. [Laughs.] Hello, Adam Feldman!
Hello, Lillias White! I’ve been doing these interviews with performers who are going back to Broadway—just trying to get a sense of how they are feeling, because for some people it seems to be more complicated than, you know, “Yay, Broadway's back!” But for other people maybe it's not.
Well, for me it is “Yay, Broadway's back.” I live uptown in Harlem, and from where I live—I'm on the top floor, the 17th floor—I have fantastic views of the New York City skyline. And I can typically see a spot in the skyline over Times Square that's always bright; even when it’s cloudy, that section of the skyline is brighter. But when everything shut down, it was noticeably missing. I couldn't believe it. I got in my car to go to the health food store on 54th Street, Westerly, and then I drove around Times Square and it was shocking and sad—sad, sad—to see that there was nothing happening. There were no lights on. Nothing. So I'm glad that the lights are going to be back on. I will have that glow in the sky again, from my view. And people will be able to come and sit in the theater and be entertained and moved and changed.
And you get to help make that happen in Chicago. You did a stint in this production years ago, but at that point you were stepping into a show that was already running; I imagine it’s different now that everyone's kind of going in at the same time.
We do have a few new members of the company. Our Roxie is Ana Villafañe, who starred as Gloria Estefan in On Your Feet, and our Velma is Bianca Marroquín, who has done it before but as Roxie. I'm telling you, after not having done it for 15 years, I'm learning it all over again: where to stand, where to exit, when to pop up. It's been a journey. I am glad we have the original director, Walter Bobbie, on the scene. He’s making it tighter and more comprehensive and more lovely.
It’s tough to keep a show tight when it’s been running for 25 years!
I think everyone is very happy to be here—really digging into the choreography and getting that bend and hitting that line and making a life of this play for the audience to enjoy. We are cautiously optimistic that we're going to be able to stay open. Everybody is here with breathless anticipation to be back doing what God has made us to do.
Tourists usually make up a big part of the audience for shows that have been up this long, and there’s concern that tourism will be down this fall. What would you say is a good reason for locals to see this show, or see it again?
If they haven't seen it for a while, it's good to come and see these new young talents—and this new old talent. [Laughs] And it’s still a great show with a great story. The set has been zhuzhed up, the costumes have been zhuzhed up, so it's exciting. And theater, whether it’s Broadway or Off Broadway or Off-Off Broadway, is the heartbeat of New York City. It feeds into all of the other businesses: the restaurants, the nightclubs. I think local people should come just for the sheer joy of it. And also so they can brag: We live in New York. We live here. “We went to the first night of Chicago after it reopened!” “We went to Hamilton!” “We were there.” That's bragging rights, honey! And we locals like to have bragging rights. I'm from Brooklyn, and I’d like people from Brooklyn to come on through.
Plus, of course, as Mama Morton you have a couple of very entertaining numbers in Chicago. I’ve said this before, but it seems like in every musical you've been in, there’s at least one moment when you bring down the house. Whether it's as a main character or a smaller part like Miss Jones in How to Succeed, you make a strong impression.
Well, I appreciate you saying that. I'm humbled by that and I’m hoping that people remember that when they think about going to see a show—they remember, “Oh yeah, I saw her in this, that and the other.” There are people who didn't get to see me in Chicago the last time, so they should definitely come now. [Laughs]
This won’t be your first time on a live stage this year. You recently did a cabaret show at the Green Room, for example, partly to celebrate your birthday.
This was a very special birthday. I have become a septuagenarian! I'm 70, and I feel a lot of ways about that. I'm celebrating my birthday the whole year this year. I think it has changed my whole perspective about who I am and what I want to do and how I want to live and how I want to work.
I have less tolerance for low-flying bullshit. I have less tolerance for people telling me no I can't or no we won’t give that to you. I have less tolerance for no, and I'm more inclined to say no. “No, I work this way. I want it that way.” And I'm content with being at home. I started a garden on my terrace so I've been growing tomatoes and bell peppers and spinach and Swiss chard and roses and a little eggplant. So as a 70-year-old, I'm finding other ways to be satisfied with my life, and to be positive. But at the same time not to take any shit, you know?
That seems fair.
I think so! It makes sense to me.
Lillias White | Photograph: Courtesy David Barnum
Aside from the gardening, what have you been up to in the past year and a half?
I was busy for a good part of this lockdown. I did a lot of Zoom performances—I’m not particularly fond of all of that, but it was a way to stay connected and to stay juicy in my art and keep it flowing. I still go regularly to my vocal coach, Susan Eichhorn, and Wendy Mackenzie, my L.A. vocal coach. Last year, I lost my longtime musical director, Timothy Graphenreed. He was my musical director for decades. So that was hard to deal with. But I've been working with a young man named Mathis Picard. He's a brilliant pianist and arranger and his forte is jazz. We've been working on some Sarah Vaughan music, because I'm going to be doing a show next year exploring the music and the life of Sarah Vaughan. We have a lot of it recorded already. I cooked a lot, I ate a lot, I watched quite a bit of TV, but mostly I've been working on my Sarah Vaughan project and, you know, just trying to stay alive and stay active and stay with it and not be totally bummed out. Because this thing has been very depressing at times. I lost some family members, I lost some friends to the Coronavirus. But I've been blessed—really, knock on wood, honey! [She knocks on wood]—that I have a dog and cat who have been great company. I still don’t have a good man in my life yet, so.
You also have a new album that was just released in July. Were you working on that as well?
That is from before. Timothy and I went up to Vermont, where my friend Dr. Joshua Sherman has a state-of-the-art recording studio called Old Mill Road. The studio is situated on a river—you stand in the studio and see the river flowing. It's absolutely beautiful. So we went up there to record [in 2019] and we put everything down with a piano. Then Timothy passed away, and Joshua got together with Ben Arrindell, our engineer, and they found musicians up in Vermont and they finished the album. It’s called Get Yourself Some Happy!, and people can get it at LilliasWhite.com. This whole pandemic thing was not on the radar when we recorded this album, but I think it’s the perfect album for these times right now, because it's gonna make you smile at least. I did “The Twist”—you know, by Chubby Checker—but we Lilliasized it, so people can get up and dance in their living rooms. We need something to uplift us. There's so much going on in the world that's tragic—things that we can't do anything about, or we feel that we can't do anything about—so this is some music that's going to just take your mind off that and make you sing along and dance and feel better.
And that’s not nothing. One thing I keep hearing is that Broadway should be tackling big, serious issues. I don't disagree, but I also think there's something to be said for escapism, too. Watching really good performers sing and dance and act really well has a value in and of itself, at least for me.
It absolutely does! That doesn't mean that you completely forget about everything else, but for the two and a half hours that you’re in that theater, you can be transported and you can be changed so that your mind is taken off of the garbage and your heart gets a lift. It's important for people to have an outlet where they can sit down and enjoy something that's going to take up your full attention. Because when I go see a show, it has my full attention.
Which is not to say that there isn’t also room for dealing with big issues.
I've been doing some very important work with an organization called Black Theatre United. We started having a series of meetings after the murder of George Floyd and the murder of Breonna Taylor and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. We were so distraught and we felt that we needed to do something to make things change. So we've been fundamental in putting together a thing called A New Deal for Broadway. The purpose of it is to secure equity, inclusion, just basic decency for all of us who live and work in the theater together. We are all about not having an all-white creative team. That has to change. There need to be more people who look like me included in what's going on with the creation of shows on Broadway, and Off Broadway as well. So I've been active in that.
This issue came up in my conversation with André De Shields as well. As a Black performer who has achieved success within the industry, do you feel a responsibility in that role?
Well, just because people like André and myself—and people like Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, LaChanze—just because we've had a certain amount of success, it doesn't mean that we have not experienced bias in the business.
In Martin Short’s revue Fame Becomes Me, which was on Broadway about 15 years ago, Capathia Jenkins sang a rousing up-tempo number called “A Big Black Lady Stops the Show,” and the joke was that when your show is running out of energy, you plug in that kind of performer and that kind of number. It was a funny, tongue-in-cheek song, but also complicated—because at the same time as it was identifying and calling out a problem, or at least a cliché, it was also kind of being that problem, and doing the thing it was joking about.
It's true! So, yeah, I mean, what can I say? That's true. There have been a lot of things that have been more successful because they had somebody like me in it to stop the show—to add to the intensity and the quality of the songs and the characters. That's true. But that does not stop certain things from happening that make you feel…How can I say this? That kind of notoriety—that we can stop the show, that we can really perform or outperform the average show—we don't want that taken for granted. We want to be able to be compensated and treated as well as somebody like Kristin Chenoweth or Idina Menzel or Patti LuPone or whoever you can name. I want to make sure that there's equality: equality in treatment, equality in conversations about the character and about the show. I want to make sure that our voices are heard, because, I mean: I'm an accomplished professional performer. I know some shit! [Laughs.] I'm also a mother, a grandmother, I've been married, divorced, I've traveled, and I've done a lot of shows, not just Broadway. So I want people to approach me with that kind of respect—that I've done this and that I have something to say about the creation of what's going on. Do you know what I mean?
Of the shows that you've done on Broadway, which was your favorite experience?
Ooh. Ooooooh. [Pause.] I had such a good time doing The Life. I loved the music. I loved working with the cast. I loved working with [composer] Cy Coleman, and the director, Michael Blakemore. Marty Richards, the producer, was just so wonderful and gracious and made it work. The Life. It changed my life! It changed my life. And, you know, it's a particularly fulfilling thing for me as an artist to have a role written specifically for me. That role was written specifically for me. I was able to make the most of it, and I just really had a great time with that show. And I did a show years ago at the Public [in 1989] called Romance in Hard Times and that is also one of my all-time favorite shows.
William Finn’s soup kitchen musical! I have a bootleg of it somewhere.
A lot of people do! I've been nudging Bill Finn for years, you know, “Let's do it again, come on.” And he called me up a couple of years ago when they were doing a production of it up in Massachusetts, and he said [imitating Finn’s gruff voice] “Lillias! Uh, we’re doing your show, you know.” I said, ”Yeah, I read about it.” He said, “Well you’re really great but, you know, you're too old.” I said, “Well, thank you for calling me to tell me that, but I disagree.” That's a role that I think would be really well suited to someone who's older. Here's a woman who's been trying to have a child forever and suddenly she's pregnant and all these things are going on. It's a witty, crazy show, and the music is fantastic. The premise of love in that show is so divine to me. So that's another show that I really loved doing, and I would love to see it done again—preferably with me, you know.
Have you ever done Gypsy? Because that would be something I’d want to see.
Not yet! [Laughs] I wish! That’s on my list. Somebody also asked me about Hello, Dolly!, and yeah, I could do Dolly. Oh, and recently somebody was interviewing me on a red carpet at a movie called The Show Must Go On, a really excellent documentary. And she says, “How do you feel about the revival of Funny Girl?” And I said, Funny Girl? I don't know anything about it. Nobody called me!” You're laughing. But that's the kind of thing I'm talking about. There's a YouTube video of me singing “Don't Rain on My Parade,” and the whole world has seen it. And there's a scene before the song. I could very well play Fanny Brice, okay? But we're not there yet. We talk about non-traditional casting and all this stuff, but we're not really there yet. We need to get there. We need to have a Lillias White doing Fanny Brice. What? [Switches into old-school Brooklyn accent.] I’ve got the accent, I'm from Brooklyn. I can tawk like that. What do you mean? Look, just cawl me. Nobody cawled me to come and play Fanny Brice! What the hell is going on here?! [Back to regular voice.] This is 2021, people. Let's wake up. We're going to be in the theater and we're going to make believe I’m somebody else. Why can't I make believe I'm Fanny Brice? And you sit there and make believe that I’m Fanny Brice and you say, Oh my God, she’s Fanny Brice. Only she's dark-skinned. I'm just saying: When are they going to do that for people who look like me? When in the theater are we gonna really start being unafraid to take on differences and deal with it?
We’ve been moving in that direction, but it still seems to confuse some people. But it doesn’t as much in, say, opera.
Yeah. Cause you're listening to what's important, which is the score and the story. We need to get to that.
You’re done with your dinner, so we should probably wrap this up. Thank you so much for talking. Is there anything we didn’t get to that you’d like to talk about in particular?
No, I’ve said it. Call Bill Finn and tell him to hurry up and get a producer to do Romance in Hard Times starring Lillias White. I can still sing it! 'Cause I go to my coach, honey. I keep up.
Chicago resumes performances on September 14, 2021. You can buy tickets here. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Lillias White | Photograph: Courtesy David Barnum