When brainstorming women to feature, I knew there was one I had to consider – Lillias White. I mused; wouldn’t it be great if she is from Brooklyn? Well she is and I am thrilled.
My introduction to Lillias occurred almost 14 years ago quite by accident. I was working at LDF and our President was planning to attend a concert at Carnegie Hall. However, on the day of the event she was called away on pressing matters. She asked me to represent her and I happily agreed. It had been years since I attended a concert at Carnegie Hall and I was truly excited. When I entered the lobby, there was a huge poster with photos of the featured performers: Cedric (Skitch) Henderson and his orchestra and Lillias White. I admit to knowing a little about Skitch but Lillias was new to me. Wow she is a sister I said with a smile as I moved inside to take my seat.
The perfunctory remarks were brief and the performance began. Lillias walked on stage in a beautiful gown. Without much pretense she passionately belted out a series of show tunes. The one that I remember most vividly is “My Only Son”, part of the repertoire from a “future” play The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea. Before the end of the song, the audience was already standing. Most of the women, if not all, reached for their handkerchiefs. Not only did she sing with perfection, her delivery touched many hearts.
After Lillias’ Broadway debut in Barnum (1980), her career took flight. Her performances on Broadway and off-Broadway inspired critics to take note of her talent, grace and poise. Lillias’ Broadway credits include: Dreamgirls (1981) when she appeared as the understudy for Effie Melody White and again in 1987 when she successfully secured the role in the play’s revival. Lillias mesmerized audiences when she sang “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going“. In addition to Dreamgirls, she has appeared in Cats (1982), Carrie (1988), Once on This Island (1990), How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1995), Chicago (1996) and The Life (1997).
Lillias’ appearance in The Life somewhat echoed her rise to fame in Dreamgirls. The Life had two runs, premiering off-Broadway in 1990 and on Broadway in 1997. In both productions she portrayed Sonja – a street-wise hooker. However, it was the Broadway performance that would define her career. Judging from the reviews, her stirring delivery of the song “My Friend” was the show-stopper. For her performance as Sonja, Lillias received four prestigious awards: the Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, the People’s Choice Award and The Outer Critics Award.
The past few years have met with equal acclaim. In 2008 she appeared as a meddling queen in the California premiere of the play The Princess and the Black-Eyed Pea. For all of us who saw Fela (2010), we cannot forget Lillias’ portrayal as Fela’s mother, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. This was quite the moment! Her performance of the song “Rain” was a highpoint of the evening and she was nominated for a Tony Award. I was delighted to learn that Lillias never forgot her Brooklyn roots. She performed with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in a 50th anniversary celebration. On this occasion she sang songs by Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and George and Ira Gershwin.
Lillias has enjoyed a great career on-screen, with numerous voice overs and non-singing roles to her credit. I would be remiss if I did not mention one of Disney’s most-acclaimed animated shows of all times – Hercules! In this show, Lillias sings “Zero to Hero”. Each time I hear this song, I remember why I am so in awe of her talent.
Here is what Darlene Donloe of the LA Stage Times wrote about Lillias following an interview in May 2012:
Lillias White won’t admit it, but when she takes the stage, she literally takes the stage. She won’t admit it, but when she’s front and center and in the zone, she owns it.
We could not agree more. Lillias White, From Brooklyn to Broadway.
Lillias White – Fela Opening Night, Playbill.com
Lillias White (with cast) – The Princess and The Black-Eyed Pea , LA Stage Times
Lillias White – Courtesy of Fela! and Playbill.com
Due to the interest in Lillias’ album, this post has been updated with a photo of the cover.