'Brava!' Lillias White and Seth Rudetsky Talk Upcoming Boston-area Show

by John Amodeo

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 25, 2019

"For the [2001 "Dreamgirls"] Actors' Fund Concert, with Audra McDonald, and Heather Headley, I brought in Lillias as Effie and she brought down the house," says Emmy-nominated writer, musician, conductor, actor and producer Seth Rudetsky about the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical theater actress Lillias White, with whom Rudetsky has worked off and on, mostly on, for over 20 years. Rudetsky first took notice of White when she performed the role of Effie White in the 1987 Broadway revival of "Dreamgirls" and made a mental note to find a way to work with her. Years later, when he conceived of "Dreamgirls" for the 2001 Actors' Fund Benefit Concert, he knew White had to be his Effie.

It's no wonder. White was Jennifer Holiday's standby for eleven months during the L.A. run of "Dreamgirls" where she impressed director/choreographer Michael Bennett who let her take over the role in San Francisco and Chicago on the tour. It eventually went to Broadway as the musical's first revival where it was playing on July 2, 1987, the day Bennett died from AIDS-related illnesses. White recalls her first encounter with Bennett, the seven-time Tony Award-winning director/choreographer, as being "quite something. It was very unusual. I auditioned originally for Lorrell (one of the other members of the Dreams, the pop group the musical chronicles). After my audition, which was a little risqué, they thought I was better suited for Effie. They asked me to learn her songs and come back and audition as Effie." When Bennett cast White as the standby for Effie after that audition, he told her, "I finally have an actress in the part."

Smitten with White

Rudetsky was so smitten with White, he first asked her to sing the "fight scene" at the end of Act I for a fundraiser at his synagogue "sometime in the '90s," he recounts. The scene ended with White singing the heart-rending power ballad, "And I'm Telling You, I'm Not Going," which she got to reprise in Rudetsky's 2001 Actors' Fund Benefit Concert. Rudetsky then cast her in his 2002 "Funny Girl" Actors' Fund Benefit Concert, where White raised the rafters with her take-no-prisoners delivery of "Don't Rain on my Parade." Rudetsky then had White open his 2004 "Hair" Actors' Fund Benefit Concert, where her clarion voice pierced the silence with "Aquarius."

Rudestky and White continue to work together, performing on cabaret stages around the country and the world. White is also a frequent performer on Rudetsky's Big Fat Broadway Cruise vacations. Rudetsky and White make a rare duo appearance in the Boston area on Saturday, November 30, at Church of the Presidents in Quincy, as headliners for the Fair Saturday Quincy evening benefit concert, presented by JM Productions. "Fair Saturday Quincy" is part of a worldwide cultural benefit event showcasing the arts. Originating in Bilbao, Spain in 2014, "Fair Saturday" aims to create a positive social impact each year on the last Saturday of November, the day following Black Friday. While over one hundred cities worldwide participate in Fair Saturday, Quincy is the first official U.S. city to participate, with events throughout the day, culminating in the finale concert with Rudetsky and White, who will be joining high school and college students from the "Rising Stars" program in an evening of song.

Broadway babies

White, a Brooklyn native, and Rudetsky, a Long Island native, were immersed in Broadway theater from young ages, leading them each into Broadway careers. Rudetsky, a virtuosic pianist and a virtual encyclopedia of Broadway trivia, has been musical director for more than a dozen Broadway shows, has produced/musical directed/conducted six Actors' Fund Benefits, performs with Broadway actors on cabaret stages, and is the afternoon host of Sirius/XM Satellite Radio's "On Broadway." In his spare time, he co-conceived, co-wrote, and starred in the Broadway musical "Disaster." Rudetsky admits that wearing all those hats at once in "Disaster" had sometimes been a recipe for, well, disaster.

"Because I'm ADD, I think I can always do more than one thing at once," quips Rudetsky. "I would run off stage and write things down. In preview this scene with Faith Prince wasn't landing when it always got a laugh Off -Broadway. She wasn't far enough downstage to get the laugh, but I hadn't figured that out yet, and I said to Lin Manuel Miranda, who was watching the show with me backstage, 'I don't know why Faith isn't getting the laugh.' Which the audience heard loud and clear because my mike was turned on for the entrance I had just missed. I'm still backstage, when I hear Rachel [York], who is on stage, saying my character's name softly, trying to get my attention to enter."

Favorite roles

White has played some of the most iconic roles in Broadway musicals, beginning of course, with Effie Melody White ("Dreamgirls"), but also including Grizabella ("Cats"), Asaka ("Once on This Island"), and Matron Mama Morton ("Chicago"). Her prize possession, she says, is Sonya, from "The Life," which earned White a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. It was in "The Life" that White's character gets to sing the showstopping number "The Oldest Profession," which White explains was written specifically for her. "Cy [Coleman] and I became good friends when I did 'Barnum,'" recounts White. "After it closed, Cy and Joe Layton were working on this piece with Ira Gassman and told me we have a role with you in mind. I went over to listen to what they created, and it turned into a workshop and ten years later it went to Broadway."

Looking back on these roles, White admits that Effie was both "challenging and demanding, a tour-de-force of acting, singing, and dancing, while working with a great creative team of artists." She cites the Off-Broadway production of William Finn's "Romance in Hard Times" as a personal favorite. "I talk to him about reviving it," she muses. But she then contemplates her experience with "Once on This Island," and another side of her emerges. "For me, this was a show on Broadway that expressed the beauty and cultural significance of people that looked like me," White reveals. "I loved the fact that the story was about people who were dealing with the gods. I loved the fact that it spoke about things that I know about. And I didn't have to wear a wig or high heels and I got to swirl my hips around."

On cabaret stages

In addition to Broadway, Rudetsky and White have enjoyed performing their cabaret shows, together and separately. For nearly two decades, Rudetsky has toured the country with various Broadway stars in a conversational format, where he interviews the star in comfy armchairs "on a swatch of living room rug," periodically interrupting the interview to accompany them on the piano to a song, replete with his witty commentary. Boston audiences might recall his recent visits with Chita Rivera ("West Side Story," "Chicago," "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), Jessie Mueller ("Beautiful," Waitress," "Carousel"), and Cheyenne Jackson ("Xanadu," "Finian's Rainbow"). Rudetsky will be appearing again in Boston on January 7 with Kelli O'Hara ("The Light In The Piazza," "South Pacific," "The Pajama Game") at the Emerson Colonial Theater.

White has been frequenting cabaret stages throughout New York for some years now. Of her 2014 cabaret act, Brian Scott Lipton, of Theater Pizzazz, declared: "Whenever you see this powerful Tony Award winner perform live, it's usually with the uncontrollable urge to applaud wildly, shout 'Brava,' and even stand up mid-show. All of which you'll be doing if you're lucky enough to catch her breathtaking new cabaret act, "The Lillias White Effect," at 54 Below. Smartly conceived and directed by Will Nunziata (a fine singer in his own right), the show allows the dynamic White to show off all of the many gifts we've known she has possessed for the past 30 years — and maybe even a couple that we don't. It's not just her ability to sing equally well in both a sweet soprano and in a raise-the-roof lower register that makes White such a great artist, it's her ability to get to the core of a lyric."

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.

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