A special live performance this Saturday, July 21, by the sensational Tony Award winning songstress/actress Lillias White is sure to bring down the house. She will take center stage at Bay Street Theatre’s biggest fundraiser of the year, the annual Rock the Dock! Summer Bash on the Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. The dynamic performer will also be returning to the Hamptons a couple weeks later to star as the legendary blues singer Maybelle Smith in Bay Street’s upcoming world premiere of the musical Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues, written and directed by Paul Levine.
When I caught up with White, who is now a grandmother of four with two more on the way (boy and girl twins!), she was on the other phone saying goodbye to what sounded like a good friend, and getting Maxie, her 21-year-old rat terrier, out from underneath her feet.
Q: You are performing at the Bay Street Gala on Saturday?
A: Yes, we are going to Rock the Dock!…come prepared to have a good time.
Q: Will you be doing selections from the upcoming musical Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues?
A: I’m not sure what we will be doing yet.
Q: I know you have been to the Hamptons several times, and we even shared a table at a benefit once, but when was your first time?
A: In the 1970s I came to Sag Harbor with the Demigods Theater Company for a college production. We stayed with Doctor Gilbert to do a film/videotape of a work.
The Brooklyn native has appeared in film and television and has also toured the world in leading musical roles and in concerts. She is a fixture in the Broadway community, winning a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in 1997 for her portrayal of the prostitute Sonja in the musical The Life. The role was written specifically for her by Cy Coleman, and for good reason. She stopped the show nightly with her tour-de-force rendition of “The Oldest Profession,” a song in which Sonja bemoans her life as a prostitute. Prior to that the actress made her Broadway debut in the musical, Barnum, in 1981, and then acted as an understudy for the character Effie in the original production of Dreamgirls only to own the part a few years later in the 1987 revival.
More recently on Broadway she was nominated for a Tony Award for her haunting interpretation of Funmilayo in Bill T. Jones’s hit musical Fela, about the Nigerian musician/political dissident, who created Afrobeat. She also toured with Fela in Africa.
She won an Obie Award for the Public Theater’s production of the William Finn musical Romance in Hard Times and an Emmy Award for her regular role on the PBS TV show “Sesame Street.” She has also starred in the Actors Fund of America’s benefit concerts of Dreamgirls, Funny Girl and Hair. Her YouTube performances from those shows are favorites amongst fans who have never seen Lillias perform live.
Q: Tell me about the new show Big Maybelle.
A: The show has soul and spirit. Maybelle was a blues singer from the South, who recorded popular songs in the 1950s… a big woman with a big voice. The music is heartfelt like her life, with lots of ups and downs. Her songs have an honesty of performance, a purity.
Q: How did this new show happen?
A: I met Paul (the writer and director) when I was doing Fela and we clicked. We have been workshopping the show for 2 years. I’m backed by Michael Mitchell on piano plus a five-piece band.
Q: The role was created for you?
A: No, I would say I am tailoring myself to the role.
Q: Sounds Exciting! You’ve accomplished so much as a performer, and I realize this is premature, but how would you like to be remembered, artistically?
A: I’m blessed and highly favored. I think I would like to be remembered as an artist who made people feel good with a sense of reality and truth.
BIG MAYBELLE: SOUL OF THE BLUES runs on the Mainstage @ Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor Tuesday, August 7 through Sunday, September 2, for more information or tickets call 631-725-9500 or online at www.baystreet.org.