Legendary Broadway musical Dreamgirls, based on the story of Motown supergroup The Supremes, is heading to the big screen early next year with a star line-up already confirmed in the cast.
Beyonce has been cast as the Diana Ross character called Deena, with recent Oscar winner Jamie Fox, Eddie Murphy and Usher also confirmed.
But if Lillias White, the woman who played the lead Effie Melody White on Broadway to great acclaim, has anything to do with it, she will among the cast when the 1981 musical finally goes before the cameras in January.
Oh, I would love to do that role, says White during a chat in her Sydney hotel room during her first Australian visit. I did that role for a long time and I think I did it pretty damned good.
The movie is long overdue and it is time to make it now. I know Beyonce has been cast as Deena, but I am waiting to hear who will play the other two girls. I am not 22 anymore, or 34, but I am older than I look, she says with a wink.
There is a Broadway girl named Ramon Keller who is very good, and I know there has been some talk about American Idol‘s Fantasia, but I would love to have a shot at doing the movie. My only wish is that the movie was done when Michael [Bennett] was still alive.
White is referring to the legendary Broadway director and choreographer, who created Dreamgirls as well as the musical A Chorus Line. Bennett, one of Broadway’s first openly gay talents, died of AIDS in 1987.
When White replaced Jennifer Holliday in the central role of Effie, the overweight lead singer who is pushed into the background to allow the pretty and thin Deena to take her place, Bennett is said to have exclaimed about White, I finally have an actress in the role! She recreated the part for a concert performance in 2001 which was released on CD.
White says working with the tempestuous Bennet changed her career, and helped open the doors for the many shows and awards that later came her way, including 1997’s Tony Award for the musical The Life.
Michael was crazy and wild, but he had a vision and respected talent, she says. He was about taking that talent and then making something out of it. I feel a lot of love for him as I didn’t end up mad with him at all.
He was fine when we were working with him, as far as we knew. We didn’t know he was really sick until near the end.
Some of her brightest moments in Dreamgirls will be among White’s repoitre when she makes her Sydney debut at @Netwown for three nights in mid September.
Her one-woman show, Brooklyn to Broadway, charts her life story, from singing on her grandmother’s dining room table in New York’s Harlem, through the ups and downs of her personal life and to her stage triumphs. Apart from Dreamgirls and The Life, she has also starred in Barnum, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Cats, The Wiz and Once on This Island.
She is also an acclaimed jazz vocalist, and is often called -˜Broadway’s First Lady of Soul’. Back in 1990, she was a back-up singer on such hits as Madonna’s Rescue Me and Jeffrey Osborn’s If My Brother’s In Trouble.
Madonna was interesting to work with me again, she says. We had been cast together in a Broadway show in the early 1980s called Rock’N’ Roll!The First 5000 Years, and she dropped out because she said she got a record deal. We all huffed, -˜You are leaving a Broadway show because of a record deal?’ And the rest of it, of course, is history!
In my show, I chronicle my life and talk about the shows I have done, the people I have worked with and my former husbands! We have a good time with it.
This is actually a very freeing time of my life. I have had a really wonderful career, but I have also had two great children (a son and a daughter, both in their 20s). I am blessed, but it also means I can say to them, -˜You guys are now grown and settled, so Mother is going!’ she laughs.
I can now get on a plane and go wherever I am called, and do my thing. And here I am in Sydney!
For a performer who is an above-the-title star name on Broadway and has won TV’s Emmy Award for her appearances on Sesame Street, White admits she has found it surprising she has such a following in Sydney.
That is very humbling. I am amazed how many people I have met in Sydney who have told me they saw me in The Life on Broadway. That doesn’t really register at all, as I thought there might have been a few, but it seems to be so many people. I am amazed to even think I am in Sydney and people are coming to see my show!
White has a dedicated gay following in the US, from not only her Broadway roles but also her appearances with the Gay Men’s Chorus in both New York and Boston, and appearances at HIV/AIDS fundraisers.
I will always help when I can to raise money for people living with HIV/AIDS, she says. I have lost too many friends, so when I get called to do a show, I just do it.
But she also believes her audience is also thanks to the cult gay following of Dreamgirls and the experiences of the character of Effie.
Gay fans seem to like her as they know she is the one with the voice and should never have been put in the background. It is like as gay man in a show who has the talent, but because someone knows he is gay, they push him out the back. That is not right.
I think gay people empathise with Effie, and they love that she is triumphant in the end. She is the underdog who does not deserve what she gets. Gay men understand that.
Lillias White in From Brooklyn to Broadway plays 8, 11 and 15 September at @Newtown, 52 Enmore Road, Newtown. Bookings 9550 3666.