Lillias White is a theatrical treasure. The The Life Tony winner and OG Once on This Island standout, whose array of stage and screen credits range from Chicago to How to Succeed... to an Emmy-winning turn on Sesame Street, has established herself as one of the friendliest faces within the community, simply exuding positivity and class with every note she belts (and let us tell you, boy, can she belt any note!!). So, it comes as no surprise that the staff at The Green Room 42 asked her to be their inaugural act when they officially opened last February at 570 Tenth Avenue within the Yotel.
One year later, the funky fresh venue is approaching its landmark first anniversary, and it only seemed right to mark the occasion with the woman who started it all. Thus, on February 14th—one year to the day she made her Green Room debut—Mama will return to “provide” audiences with an appropriately-themed evening of Valentine’s Day tunes titled, perhaps just as appropriately, “Baby Makin’ Music.”
We sat down with White just days ahead of her grand Green Room homecoming to discuss, among other topics, the creation of her show, her thoughts on love of all kinds, and a certain special someone who currently resides in the White House.
Check out her answers below, then head to the Green Room 42 and let this riff-tastic dame put you in that sexy, steamy Valentine’s Day mood! You won’t be disappointed. Happy Valentine’s Day!!
Can you give a quick overview of the show and what audiences might expect? How might it be different from your last show at the Green Room 42?
To be completely honest with you, as of right now [2/4], I don’t know what it’s going to be. My [original] musical director got really ill with the flu, so he’s not doing the show anymore. I’m going into rehearsal later today with a new MD, and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.
It will still be themed “Baby Makin’ Music” for sure, but there will just probably be more of an element of jazz and pop to it… more so than R&B like we originally planned. And unlike my first Green Room concert last year, I won’t have the background singers.
And audiences can still expect a great night. It’ll be an early evening, it’s not going to go all night…. so you’ll be home at a reasonable hour. You know, the Green Room is a lovely place to have a drink or two, and a little bite to eat… and the show will be a fabulous, fabulous night of music. But if you want to know the specifics… I guess you’ll just have to come and see it for yourself! (Laughs)
You’ve done a fair amount of cabaret throughout your career. Can you talk about the process of constructing these shows? For this one specifically, can you speak about how you came up with the theme and set list?
Generally speaking, I usually pick songs whose lyrics speak to me… and affect me emotionally. And then, once I have those, I’ll then develop a patter based on what the song is saying, or certain moments in that [number] that I want to emphasize and create for people.
I love to mix up the rhythm of my shows, too. Like, I’ll put them in an order, such that there’s too many, say, ballads at once all in a row. You’ll get a good mix, you’ll get a good flavor for all types of music [within] my show.
And then, in this case specifically, with the fact that it’s taking place on Valentine’s Day, the show will be a homage to love, and all the facets of it… the loss of love, the funny things that happen when one is in love, and those feelings of desire and the happiness that comes along with folks are lovin’ on each other… if you know what I mean. (Laughs)
You officially opened the Green Room 42 on February 14th, 2017 and now, you’ve been asked back to mark the first anniversary. What does that mean to you personally? Why do you feel it’s significant?
Well, first and foremost, [to celebrate a full year] means that the room is doing well. People are enjoying the space, and it’s continuing to thrive as a venue, and that’s no easy feat in New York City, [where] it can be difficult to keep such a club up and running. So, in that sense, we’re just there celebrating another year… another year of simply just being here.
And then, personally, last year was honestly kind of tough for me in terms of losing loved ones, so in speaking of what it means to me, I’m happy to be livin’ and breathin’, and I’m just celebrating the fact that I’m still jammin’ and still loving and still willing to stand on a stage and sing from my heart. ‘Cause that’s really what I most enjoy doing, and, again, that’s really what this show is…. in more ways than one. (Laughs)
In that same vein, what is it about the Green Room 42 that appeals to you? What makes it unique to other cabaret venues? Why, in your opinion, should audiences come check it out?
Well, it’s fresh. It’s new. For me, personally, I love the decor. I love the way it’s lit, I love the way it sounds (the acoustics are top-notch), I love the spaciousness of it, and I love the mood that it sets for people to be together. Whether you come with a group of people or not, you’re usually seated with another group of people that you don’t necessarily know… it opens up opportunities for bonding, meeting new people, and celebrating the fact that you’re all there for the same purpose, which is to come together and enjoy great music. I love that… that’s really what it’s all about.
What is it about cabaret that appeals to you? What does it offer you that you just can’t get from doing a Broadway show?
Well, with a Broadway show, you have a set amount of lines, a set amount of choreography and blocking, and a set song list, and with cabaret, anything goes! That is, nothing’s set. I can change up the set list, according to my mood or what I feel like singing.
And there have been times when I’ve done cabaret, where I decided to do one song or one set list, and then the next day, I came in and [proposed] a completely different set list. And you’re free to do that… cabaret allows you to do that.
I also, in cabaret, have the ability to break the fourth wall, so to speak, and interact with the audience. [I can] be more direct, and have that intimacy and exchange with people, and develop, as I said, a patter between numbers. I love that, as opposed to just having it be a strict, rote, number after number after number. Keep it loose, keep it fun, and switch it up! Why not?
You’ve also been incredibly active as a proponent for social change through benefit concerts and other special appearances. Can you share a little bit as to why you think it’s important for actors to be socially active, and how you try to bring that angle into each of your concerts?
You’re speaking of the [Concert for America] shows I’ve done with Seth Rudetsky. Yeah, those have been a blast.
To answer your question, I think it’s tremendously important to be aware of what’s happening in our world, especially now in light of the fact that we have somebody in the White House that I consider to be a real lunatic [and] someone who is completely insensitive to the human condition.
Come on.. all people in this country — all people — at one time or another, were immigrants in one way or another. Of course, in the case of African-Americans like myself, we weren’t just sailing around one day and decided to come [to America], we were brought here by force.
But as we all know, there’ve been people coming from all over the world — especially from those places where there’s been strife or war or abject poverty — to come here and have a better life. And I recognize that criminals genuinely do exist in our world, but for the most part, these people that come here are good, law-abiding people, who are here to do good and [project] good onto the world and make a better life for themselves and for their children and ultimately, [they’re here] to make the world a better place, and to add to the strength and power of goodness that we have in this country. And our leadership at this moment is obviously ignoring that fact in favor of petty nonsense… I don’t even know what you want to call it. It’s lunacy is what it is.
So, [in contrast], I’m all for creating an atmosphere of change for the better. I’m all about a feel-good evening where you can relax and focus on the music and the words… and all the positive things going on that make our lives and our country so great.
Because, again, people come here to create and spread good, and we need to leave the door open for that to come in and for the good to continue. And that’s what I aim to do with all the music in my shows.
Getting back to the topic of your cabaret, which song from your set list speaks to you the most and why?
That would be “My Funny Valentine.” It speaks to the idea to love a person in spite of their imperfections. They may not be the most good-looking or photogenic, per se (as the song says, “your looks are laughable”), but you love them still. You love them for their differences. I think that’s really wonderful and that’s why I think the song speaks to me. We should always be loving… if we’re lucky enough to have that special person, we should always be loving every day, in the most complete and total way possible. It’s such a gift.
Given that this is a Valentine’s Day-themed show, what would your ideal V-Day consist of?
(Laughs) My ideal Valentine’s Day? It would consist of chocolate, flowers, sweet words, music, snuggles, laughter…. and love-making. You know what I mean? Hot, steamy sex that’s enjoyable and fulfilling (Laughs). But that should really be [applicable] every day, don’t you think?
Finally, in closing, can you describe your Green Room 42 show in three words?
Hmmm… let’s see. Fun, moving, and (very, very) musical. So, just come on out and relax and enjoy… and then go home and make love. (Laughs)
Lillias White: Baby Makin’ Music plays the Green Room 42 at the Yotel (570 Tenth Ave.) on February 14th, the official one-year anniversary of the venue’s opening. For tickets and/or more information, please visit www.thegreenroom42.com.