by Brian Scott Lipton . . .
For four decades, Lillias White has been thrilling New York audiences with her virtuosic performances, from brilliantly playing Effie White in the 1987 revival of “Dreamgirls” to her Tony-Award winning work as the hardened prostitute Sonja in “The Life” to her countless cabaret appearances at such clubs as Feinstein’s at the Regency, 54 Below and The Green Room.
Now on Thursday, February 18, White will perform virtually as part of Flushing Town Hall’s “Black History Trilogy” by offering a performance of “Divine Sass: A Tribute to the Music, Life, and Legacy of Sarah Vaughan.” TheaterPizzazz recently spoke to White about the show, her musical influences, and life during and after the COVID pandemic.
TP: How does it feel to be doing this sort of virtual show?
LW: It’s not my favorite cup of tea, to be honest. I’d rather have people in the audience, where I can look into their eyes and interact with them — which is why I haven’t done something like this before now. But I realize people are still stuck at home and if me singing can make people feel better or give them hope, then I guess it’s all worth it.
TP: What are your first memories of Sarah Vaughn?
LW: When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my aunt and uncle played all the popular singers of the time from Sarah to Dinah Washington to Barbra Streisand. I was always intrigued by the range of Sarah’s voice, how could she easily jump from note to note, and her interpretation of those songs. I knew I wanted to sing like that someday!
TP: So, even as a child, you wanted to be a singer?
LW: Yes, but I didn’t really know what I had talent-wise. I knew I had some sort of gift because my grandma would put me up on the table after our Sunday family dinners and I sang for everyone in my family and they loved it. I went to college to study music, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do professionally until I did theater there. I was in this group called the Demigods, where we were trained to be triple threats. Let’s just say once I got into theater, I couldn’t get out.
TP: What particular songs and stories about Sarah will audiences hear at the show?
LW: I really want people to know that she was a pioneer in Be-Bop. She didn’t invent it, but she really perfected it and pushed to get it out there. What I also love about Sarah is that she was playful and energetic. And she was well loved by both her audiences and her band, in part because she was a musician who could really play piano. As for songs, I’m truly fond of this one called “Shulie-A- Bop.” It’s challenging and very fun. Sarah also does a really different version of “A Night in Tunisia” (which was written by Dizzy Gillespie). Honestly, since I’ve been listening to her records for so long, I keep finding new things to love, especially on the Internet. So whatever song of hers I’ve heard lately is probably my new favorite.
TP: Your show is in honor of Black History Month. What other black entertainers have influenced you?
LW: Dinah Washington, for sure! She was a go-getter who changed the world. I love that she was a tough cookie, as was Sarah, and that she was a businesswoman. I have to say Duke Ellington. I did his last show “Queenie Pie.” in DC in the early 1980s. I really wish I could have sung for him. His brother was involved in that show and he says he would have loved me. Leontyne Price really influenced me, and not just because she was a friend of Sarah. I think every singer, not just opera singers, should listen to her. And finally, there’s Stevie Wonder, who may be the most brilliant singer-songwriter, arranger and producer on the planet today.
TP: What do you hope post-COVID life will bring for you work-wise?
LW: I know there are a lot of challenges for theaters to reopen, but I would love to do another Broadway show or any long-term, high-paying and enjoyable gig. And of course, I want to return to the cabaret world! As I said, I love being in the clubs. But above all, I don’t want to dream about anything from my home; I just want to be out in the world again where I can give everyone a hug!