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Interview with Broadway Legend Lillias White starring in This Joint is Jumpin
Lillias White is an undeniable Broadway star and a performer who is consistently operating at the top of her game. Known primarily for roles on Broadway such as the original production of Dreamgirls in which she understudied and played the lead role of Effie White, the original production of Barnum, Fela!, Cats and the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business...her career so far has never brought her to the West End.
“I've been working everywhere else in the world from Singapore to Australia to LA and everywhere else” she laughs as I ask her why she's made London wait so long for her debut. “I'm glad to be here and I'm hoping I get a following here, more so than I could ever imagine. We are here – we've got a show and we're ready to let London have it!”
Lillias is preparing to open This Joint is Jumpin' at The Other Palace in Victoria, a musical revue show that celebrates jazz icon Fats Waller’s life and music. Intimate in its staging and presentation the show fuses live music, tap dancing and White's spectacular vocals to create something genuinely unique and thrilling.
“I would consider it a concert slash rent party slash just party and good time” White answers as I ask her what's in store for London audiences. “The band is really great and makes some wonderful sounds and we have a couple of tap dancers who can't be beat. The music and the dance aspect and the fact that Hoagy B. Carmichael is one of my best friends drew me to it. I won't say he's an old friend because he's not that old – neither am I! The beautiful dancers are making is so special, and the fact it's in London – I'm so excited.”
Anyone who is familiar with White's incredible vocal skills will attest that she certainly knows how to deliver a song. I wonder how the music of Fats Waller in particular attracted her as a singer, and how she personally connects to the material.
“Well many years ago I did a show called Ain't Misbehavin' which is the music of Fats Waller” she explains. “I always enjoyed listening to it and being on stage singing it. I did not know that music as a kid – once I started listening to it it became a favourite of mine. It's beautiful music, harmonies and phrases that are interesting and challenging to sing. And it's fun!”
There's a serendipity for me speaking to Lillias on the same day that I'm seeing the London première of The Life which has finally found its way to London's Southwark Playhouse some twenty years after opening on Broadway. White created the role of Sonja for which she won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and it's a role that continues to define her as a much loved Broadway performer.
“It's rare that I do a concert where I'm not doing “The Oldest Profession” it's always called for” she comments. “I do sing it quite a bit. I really love singing it. I'm planning on seeing the show as soon as I can. The original director Michael Blakemore, he and I have spoken several times in the last few months so I'm excited to see him again and relive the memories of being on stage as Sonya.”
No stranger to working on brand new original musicals Lillias was recently in the Chicago tryout of the Broadway Bound musical Gotta Dance, directed by Jerry Mitchell. The commitment to working on fresh and untested material is commendable for performers especially in a climate when so many new musicals don't always find an audience.
“I love working on new musicals” she explains. “For the most part there's a lot of trial and error and wishing and hoping and praying that it will be accepted by the audiences and that people are going to buy tickets and keep the show running. There are a lot of people relying on that – not just the people on stage, there's a whole plethora of people in the background who are relying on that show running so it's important to make it good and it's a lot of work.”
Despite the risks associated with creating roles, White explains that there's nothing quite like the thrill of musical theatre and the joy of performing is really hard to beat.
“I love that we get a brand new audience each show and we get a chance to perfect everything we do” she explains. “Even though we have to sing the same songs and say the same words, it really is a new show each time we do it. I really do enjoy that – seeing the whites of people's eyes and the smiles on their faces. Being a cast and the shenanigans that go on backstage, it's a lot of fun. But it's also hard work. People don't realise the hard work that goes into doing a Broadway show eight times a week – it is a lot of work. You have one day off, but we do it because it's in our bones to do it and I don't really know of anything else I'd rather do. It's a blessing, it's a blessing to my life.”
From all the multiple highs in her career I wonder if Lillias has one particular experience or piece of feedback that sticks with her and resonates exactly why she cherishes being a performer.
“The best response I've ever gotten was a woman stood outside of stage door after How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” she immediately replies. “She was balling, she was really crying her eyes out. I asked her why she was crying and she said 'because of the song you sang'. I did 'Brotherhood of Man', the eleven o'clock number from the show. She said she was just so moved by it, the way the song progressed and she was standing outside stage door and just crying. I hugged her and signed her Playbill – that's really one of the most extraordinary responses I've had. People get moved emotionally, I don't set out to do that but if that happens them I'm happy with the result. If people are moved and feel something then I've done my job."
As for material White's concert performances are well known for her fun vibe and unique arrangements of popular hits that prove her voice is certainly able to bring down a house not matter what style of song she happens to be performing.
“I love a good love song and a ballad” she laughs. “I love taking regular songs and 'Lilliasizing' them, adding a Caribbean beat, a reggae beat. I enjoy singing the standards as well. And a good Hoagy Carmichael song can never go wrong!”
In terms of This Joint is Jumpin' Lillias is keen to express how fun and inspiring the show will be for London audiences.
“You can expect to be thrilled, you can expect to be charged emotionally and you can expect to see some of he best tap dancing you'll ever see anywhere” she beams. “It's beautifully syncopated, executed and choreographed to the hilt. It's done in such a way that it will make you very happy”.