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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 4, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 05
Terri White: Why the lady's got to sing
Arts & Entertainment
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Terri White: Why the lady's got to sing

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Terri White is the true definition of the American success story. Her life has come full circle, from Broadway performer and queen of cabaret to living homeless in Central Park, and now back again in one of the most acclaimed revivals on Broadway. She's appeared on stage with Jim Dale and Glenn Close in the musical Barnum, and has been on video with Liza Minnelli ('Stepping Out at Radio City') and Rue McClanahan in the musical Nunsense and its subsequent sequels. She has sung the parody 'Screamgirls' for the 20th-anniversary recording of the Forbidden Broadway series, and has her own solo CD entitled The Lady's Got to Sing. Fresh from her triumphant role in the acclaimed revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, this incredible woman spoke with Seattle Gay News as she prepared for the revival's opening in Los Angeles.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences as a singer?

Terri White: When I first came to New York in my 20s, I went to see three singers: Mabel Mercer, Alberta Hunter, and Sarah Vaughan. I've learned to utilize characteristic traits from all three. Mabel Mercer said, 'I'm not a singer, I'm a songstress for telling a story with music.' Alberta Hunter once said, 'I don't act - I react in my song.' She had great timing because she used a lot of double entendres. Sarah Vaughan did incredible riffs, notes with the orchestra that the band wasn't playing. All three helped me focus on my style.

Andrews-Katz: How did you come up for the part of Joice Heth, the nursemaid of George Washington, in the musical Barnum?

White: I was doing a show called 'Let My People Come' off-Broadway, and one night a company manager came up to me and said he was doing a new show, and I just showed him exactly how it was to be done. He wanted me to play the oldest woman in the world, Joice Heth, in this new musical. It took five years from that point until it was produced. I was on the road with Ain't Misbehavin' when I got the call to come in for the Broadway audition. I flew in and sang 'Bill Bailey' as an old woman. I was in Sarasota (at the Barnum museum - I got the full perspective!) when the call came in that I got the part.

Andrews-Katz: What do you like about singing in cabaret clubs that you don't get from being in a Broadway show?

White: I really like being personal with the audiences. It's also a chance to do your own music, doing what you want and expressing how you feel - all the emotions. In Barnum, for example, I'm playing one character and doing one thing. It's about someone else's career. [The song] 'Necessity' is a great tune, but the character [in Finian's Rainbow] does only that one song. I like to do comedy and ballads and tell stories like Mable Mercer. In cabaret you have the freedom to do that.

Andrews-Katz: How does a woman go from being on Broadway and the queen of cabaret clubs to living homeless in Central Park?

White: For over 20 years, even though I worked on Broadway, I was working in piano bars. In 2007, I was working at Rose's Turn, and had been there for over 14 years. Then the bar closed. I tried to get jobs at other piano bars and never got a call. I couldn't get a job or a show - nothing was happening. I had just broken up in a 14-year relationship, and my world just crashed.

Andrews-Katz: How did being homeless change your perspective on life?

White: There is a book called The Secret [by Rhonda Byrne]. I had worked on a show one day and got turned on to the book. Because of it, I was able to find myself again and start believing in myself. I had lost myself in different shows, or in the bar, and I needed to find myself again. It was a matter of rethinking my life. Instead of thinking of being homeless as a negative thing, I had to think of it as a chance to start over.

Andrews-Katz: Do you have a favorite song from your CD The Lady's Got to Sing?

White: 'Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out),' because of the obvious reason. 'Everything Must Change' because it was a Sarah Vaughan song, and from that certain point of my life, everything had to change.

Andrews-Katz: What attracts to you to a song?

White: The lyrics. You'll never find me do lyrics that say 'Oooh, baby, ooooh, baby.'

Andrews-Katz: How did you meet your wife [and business manager] Donna Barnett?

White: I met her when I got a job in Key West to open a new piano bar. I ended up staying there for a while because there was nothing in New York for me at that time. Being a California girl originally, I like being by the water and working on my tan. It was perfect. She walked through the door and that was it. I say we're the perfect 'show business' couple: I'm the show and she's the business!

Andrews-Katz: What is it about the musical Follies that didn't connect with audiences originally [in 1971] that seems to resonate today?

White: I think it's because now there are computers, so if you want to understand something you can go and look it up, study it. Follies is a very visual and heartfelt show. In '71, there was so much happening, with race riots and soldiers coming home from the Vietnam War. It was more difficult to pay attention to the conflicts in the theater with everything that was happening around you at the same time. Now people comprehend things differently. They know the conflicts within the show and can appreciate it with a better understanding.

Andrews-Katz: Do you think ageism and racism play a part in casting on Broadway?

White: It always does and always will. They say they are open-minded when it comes down to casting, but they already have an idea of what type they want to cast it. Theater isn't trying to be racist, but they try to be true to the period of a piece. I find it didn't matter. As a kid my first book musical was when my father was performing in Finian's Rainbow. A subplot is about a white racist politician who gets turned black. At one point the politician says to the leprechaun, 'Damn it, man! I used to be white' and Og answers back, 'That's funny. Two weeks ago I was green.' I just saw so much learning experience through that, that it was the way I treated my life. It got me through the '50s, '60s, '70's, '80s & what decade are we in? I always believed there was no color growing up, but the heart within the person. Today you are lucky to get more than three 'black' shows on Broadway at the same time.

Andrews-Katz: Regardless of gender, what roles would you like to play?

White: I would love to do Mama Rose from Gypsy. The question is, will it happen? Now that Stephen Sondheim saw me do Follies, maybe it's a possibility!

Terri White has appeared in various New York cabaret clubs for over 20 years. Her career includes six Broadway shows, earning nominations for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for the 2010 Drama Desk Awards and the Outer Critics Circle Award (Finian's Rainbow). Aside from filmed stage performances, White has appeared in Boys on the Side and Law and Order. Her solo CD The Lady's Got To Sing celebrated its 10th anniversary by being remastered and released at Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes, and her website can be found at www.officialTerriWhite.com.

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