Sixth in a week-long series profiling the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim stars
When Terri White was cast in the Encores! concert staging of “Finian’s Rainbow” two years ago, and then in the Broadway transfer that followed, it was like coming in out of the cold.
“I thought New York was done with me and I was done with New York,” says White, in town now playing a veteran dancer in the upcoming revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” at the Kennedy Center. “It had been 20 years since I’d done a Broadway show.”
The freeze gets more literal: For a couple of months the previous autumn, White had actually been out on the street. Full shows were tough to come by, and the piano bars White worked for years were closing down. For a spell, there was no roof. White was homeless.
That’s a hard fall for a performer who was singled out in 1980 by Frank Rich in the New York Times as an up-and-comer in the musical “Barnum.” White is no stranger to that kind of praise: “Of particular note among the ensemble is Terri White,” the Times wrote when she appeared in a small-scale concert version of “Finian’s Rainbow” in 2004, “whose low, rafters-rattling alto turns the soulful, sassy ‘Necessity’ into what would register as a showstopper even in Madison Square Garden.”
When “Barnum” played the Kennedy Center in 1980, this paper chronicled White’s “beautiful singing voice and almost equally dexterous dancing; one looks forward to seeing her in a bigger part in another show.”
More than three decades later, White, in the supporting role of former dancer Stella Deems, leads the big production number “Who’s That Woman?,” which involves aging showgirls and the ghosts of their younger selves.
“Terri is spectacular,” says “Follies” choreographer Warren Carlyle, who directed White in “Finian’s Rainbow.” “She’s singing and dancing up a storm.”
“I think they kinda sorta typecast me in this role,” says White, who, despite old injuries that have limited her dancing for decades, will happily school you in the differences between tapping and hoofing. (“Hoofing, you’re down on your heels. You’re into the ground, where tapping is all light and fluffy.”) White answers questions briskly and laughs easily. She looks deeply weathered around the eyes.
It’s tempting, and probably accurate, to ascribe any impression of wear to the hard-knock life of showbiz, even though White declares that “it’s been the love of my life.” She says worse, too, about this fickle love; just get her started on the pay scale that grossed her a couple of hundred bucks a week for off-Broadway shows. White had long-running gigs in the “Nunsense” franchise but always kept up bartending work to keep living in New York.
“The phrase, ‘For the love of art’?” White asks. “If you find Art, shoot him.”
Then in 2008, with jobs scarce and no place to call home . . . “That’s when you came to Key West,” interjects a lady sitting discreetly against the wall in this fancy Kennedy Center meeting room.
Who’s that woman?
Meet Donna Barnett, an inextricable part of the Terri White story now. “I’m the show,” says White, “and she’s the biz.” Barnett designs jewelry in Key West, Fla., but lately she has picked up the management side of White’s life — fielding correspondence, booking gigs, learning on the fly. The two were married last year, and now they’re together wherever they go.
“We don’t like to be apart,” Barnett says, when asked if she’s staying in Washington long.
“Life is too short,” White chimes in.
White has a solo act that she played last year at Feinstein’s (one of Manhattan’s premier cabaret venues), and she just gave a concert in Key West. Experience, and maybe the book White calls her “Bible” – “The Secret,” by Rhonda Byrne – tells her that the gigs come when she’s not waiting anxiously. Maybe White’s stock is rising again: She drew admiring notices last year for her performance in “Finian’s Rainbow,” and she was nominated for a Drama Desk Award. Plus, after 14 auditions over a number of years, White finally got cast in “Chicago” as Mama Morton.
Big musicals are still the goal, even if home is now Key West. “Of course I want to do Broadway! I want my Tony, damn it,” White says half-playfully.
“I think theater is where she lives,” Carlyle says. “She has a wonderful connection with audiences.”
Best moments onstage? White lingers on that recent “Finian’s Rainbow,” the 1947 satire of racism that has been her favorite musical since she was a kid, even though the acclaimed production didn’t get the extended Broadway run White hoped for. She mists up thoroughly as she recalls the second chance of it, the adulation on closing night. “I bawled my eyes out,” White says.
Still loves it all, even though White can say with more authority than most in showbiz, “It’s a tough frickin’ life.”
Pressley is a freelance writer.
More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars: