Sitting on the sands of Venice Beach in January, Tony and Emmy Award-winning Lillias White was lovely, relaxed and open as we chatted about her favorite roles, the importance of listening to your mother, current projects, and more.
Broadway lovers know White for her numerous roles in successful musicals, including “Cats,” “Chicago,” “Once On This Island,” “Dreamgirls,” and her Tony Award-winning performance as the no-nonsense hooker Sonya in “The Life.” Others are thrilled to know her as the kind woman who took care of children and monsters alike on Sesame Street, as well as the woman behind the sassy, strong vocals as the lead muse in Disney’s “Hercules.”
The native New Yorker Broadway queen is in Southern California to perform her cabaret show “An Evening with Lillias White” throughout stages and clubs in the region, including a three-night run at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Jan. 23-25.
What would you say is your all-time favorite role in a musical?
Oh that’s tough, I have a couple of favorites. I’d have to say my number one is “The Life.” That just grows with me and I received all those wonderful accolades and awards. “Dream Girls” was a good one too, because I got to work with Michael Bennett. I also did “Romance in Hard Times,” which was written by William Finn and that’s one of my favorite musicals as well, because I got to play a character who was completely optimistic.
Do you have any other hidden talents that we may not know about?
I’m pretty fluent in Spanish. I started learning it when I was in junior high school and I really enjoy speaking it. So when I get together with people who speak Spanish, I try to practice with them. As for hidden talents, I like to just go with the flow and see what comes of it.
What will your audience experience in your cabaret show?
I would say a flashback to some happier times. I want people to feel like there’s still a potential for love and happiness. I’m going to get a little political. I’m hearing a lot of Trump people are out in Orange County… this is still America. I can still speak my mind. So I’ll be a little bit political about how I’m feeling about what’s going on. But it’s just fun. I want people to leave happier and more optimistic than when they came in. That’s my goal is to make people feel like they have hope and the potential for love and good feelings. Even if we disagree politically, even if we don’t share the same religious beliefs or other beliefs. This is a country made of all different kinds of people. And frankly, if you’re not Native American, we are all immigrants. But I want people to just leave happy.
Beautiful. Where is your Tony and Emmy as we speak?
Well I actually don’t the Emmy statue. I have an Emmy award as part of the cast of “Sesame Street,” but we did not actually get a statue. In one of my family’s homes is a certificate that says I won an Emmy as a part of the cast. But my Tony Award is in my living room on the shelf, very prominently displayed. Every now and then, when I’m feeling some kind of way, I take it down and I twirl it around. And I remember that night that my mother was there, my kids were there, my boyfriend was there, and it was just a very special night.
I love that. What did you want to be when you grow up?
At first I wanted to be a nurse. I’m still that way. I like to take care of people. So when I was a little girl, I wanted to be like the Nurse Nancy character, one of my favorite books I read as a kid. I wanted to be like her and take care of people, take their temperature, you know? Then when I got a little bit older, I wanted to be a ballerina. But singing was always incidental to me as a kid.
What are you doing on the beach today?
I’ve got my music, I’ve got a script to read. I’ve got a book to read. I’ve got a new Allure magazine with my dear, dear, dear friend Billy Porter on the cover. I’m just enjoying the elements, sitting here with the mother of the world, the ocean. So I’m sitting here and I’m going to say my prayer for libation.
What advice would you give young Lillias?
Oh boy. I have to write a book to her. Yeah. I’d say listen to your mother. Listen to your mother, because she really does have your best interest at heart. I would say save your money. I would say be very careful who you choose to bed down with. Make sure that you’re sure of who you are and who you’re dealing with when it comes to romance and picking a partner or boyfriends. I would say to the job at hand to never stop learning. Never stop striving to learn your craft and perfect it.
What’s on the horizon for you and your career?
I am waiting to hear if I’ll get this TV gig that I went up for last week. I’m waiting to see if they’re gonna work out the case. And I’m going to be at Carnegie Hall for Tituss Burgess’ debut. I’m part of his group that’s going to be there on February 1. I’m looking forward to that, and I’m looking forward to a very healthy, happy, joy-filled 2020.
An Evening With Lillias White
Jan. 17: Vitello’s Italian Restaurant in Studio City
Jan. 18: The Purple Room in Palm Springs
Jan. 19: Martinis Above Fourth in San Diego
Jan. 23-25: Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa