Through June 19
The Kennedy Center
Throughout her long career in show business, Terri White has certainly sung her share of Stephen Sondheim tunes in nightclubs and piano bars, but it’s not until now that she is actually tackling a full-fledged role in one of his musicals. As has-been dancer Stella Deems in Sondheim’s nostalgic backstage story “Follies” (currently enjoying a much anticipated run at the Kennedy Center), White, who is also gay, feels she’s found the part of a lifetime.
“I first saw ‘Follies’ when it opened on Broadway in 1971,” says White, 62. “And over the years I’ve sort of grown into the part.” Not only do White and her character both share roots in theater of a different era, they also know what it means to step away from show business and find respite in sunny Florida. “It’s uncanny,” White says. “It’s as if Stella was written especially for me. I’ve just had to wait 40 years to be old enough to give it a try.”
Considered among the best of Sondheim and James Goldman’s collaborations, “Follies” is a hauntingly beautiful tribute to lavish revues and increasingly complicated lives. Gathered for a final goodbye in a once grand New York theater on the eve of its destruction, a group of former showgirls reminisce about the glamorous, good old days and share where their post-chorine lives have taken them. On top of Goldman’s rich libretto, the show boasts a memorable hit laden score: “Broadway Baby,” “I’m Still Here,” “Too Many Mornings,” “Could I Leave You?” and “Losing My Mind.”
With a multi-million dollar budget, a 28-piece orchestra, and a large cast including megawatt dames like Bernadette Peters, Elaine Page and Linda Lavin, the Kennedy Center’s “Follies” (staged by gay director Eric Schaeffer) is produced big as it should be, says White. “And there are no divas here,” she adds. “It’s a brilliantly cast group of professionals who’ve come not only to work, but also to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. I respect all the ladies and relish the opportunity to share the stage with them.”
As a kid, White was part of the family act the White Quartet, and travelled the South and the Midwest performing on the TOBA — Theater Owners Booking Association, or more familiarly known to performers as Tough on Black Asses — circuit.
“My father was a crooner and a hoofer. He taught me to tap dance and put me on stage when I was 8. Times were often tough. Sometimes managers didn’t pay us and we’d get very low on funds,” she says. “I’d glue bottle caps to the soles of my shoes and tap dance on a wooden crate to raise some change for sandwiches and gas to get us to the next city for a gig.”
During those early years on the road, White watched as theaters turned exclusively into rock venues, movie houses or entirely disappeared. In the 1960s, she arrived in New York City as a dancer who sang, but as she grew older the physical challenges of dance prompted her to change her focus to singing. She still dances however. In fact, White’s Stella is perhaps the only one ever to tap dance throughout her big production number “Who’s That Woman?”
White’s Broadway and off-Broadway experience includes Joice Heth in “Barnum,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as Neal, gay director/choreographer Tommy Tune’s “The Club” (Obie Award 1976) in which she literally tap danced from her entrance to her exit, “Nunsense,” “Stepping Out” at Radio City with Liza Minnelli, “Chicago,” and the recent revival of “Finian’s Rainbow.”
Despite her big talent, White has known lulls in her career. After appearing in Tony Award-winning “Barnum” on Broadway in 1980, White was unable to find similar gigs for eight years. “I was effectively blacklisted for being gay,” she says. “There were a lot of gay men in the theater, but you didn’t see a lot of openly gay women performing on Broadway then or now.”
In 2008, White lost her apartment and slept in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park for three months. With the help of friends she found a signing gig in Key West, Fla., where she met her wife and business partner Donna Barnett. A year later the couple was celebrated a commitment ceremony on the stage of the St. James Theater where White was playing in “Finnian’s Rainbow.” Shortly thereafter, they were legally married in nearby Connecticut.
“For now,” White says, “I’m happy playing this incredible part Stella in ‘Follies.’ If the show goes on to Broadway, my wife and I will follow. If not it’s back to Key West to enjoy some gorgeous sunsets. That’s the plan.”