“This new album is a balm. It’s a salve. It’s something that will hopefully get people back on track, to be loving, and to find the sunshine through the rain.”
When you think of flat footed soul belters, Tony Award-winner Lillias White may not come immediately to mind. But since the lady has stood in for Jennifer Holiday, and beat out Patti LaBelle for a role in a movie musical, she should!
I’ll fill you in on those aspects of White’s career in a minute! But right now, I’ve got to tell you about her forthcoming album, Get Happy. The title alone is quite timely, given the trials of tribulations of 2020…and we’re only half-way through the year!
Ironically, White recorded the new album in July of 2019, long before coronavirus hit us and this summer’s civil unrest.
“Something was going on last summer…I can’t remember what it was,” the siren EXCLUSIVELY told me by phone, from her New York home. “My musical director and I agreed that we needed to record some songs that were going to be happy, to lift people up, to make people think — to reminisce about sweet times and sweet people in their lives.”
The album’s title track is the new single, and was written in 1930, when the country was in the grip of The Great Depression. Harold Arlen, who went on to write one of Hollywood’s most famous picker-uppers, “Over The Rainbow,” co-wrote a zippy tune (with Ted Koehler) that would pull anyone out of the doldrums.
In White’s crafty hands, “Get Happy” is a subdued scorcher. She almost sounds as if she’s trying to talk herself into being happy — something most of us have found ourselves doing this year. White promises an entire album that will both thrill longtime fans and introduce her to new sets of ears.
“We’ve covered The Beatles’ ‘Happy Together’ for the new album, we covered a Queen song…we bounced around genres, and we custom made the songs so that they would work for us, in keeping with how we do.”
If you’re not immediately familiar with how White does it, brace yourself. Her mellifluous, multi-octave voice is a wonder, one that elevated the superb soundtrack to Disney’s 1997 animated classic, Hercules.
“I wasn’t sure what they wanted, but I loved Phylicia Rashad — I still do to this day,” White recalled of her audition with the folks at The Mouse House. “I just wanted to give my character a sophisticated sound, and a sound that suggested that she was in charge, so I modeled the voice after Phylicia.”
In securing the role of Calliope, Hercules’ lead muse, White beat out another songstress who was known for out-singing pretty much anyone with whom she shared a microphone.
“I auditioned against a lot of really prominent people,” White continued. “Right after the movie opened, Patti LaBelle was on The Tonight Show, and she said ‘I auditioned for the new Disney movie, but I didn’t get it because this chick Lillias White got my part!”
A Disney soundtrack isn’t a bad place to land for someone with a set of pipes like White’s. Songs like “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which was introduced in the 1941 Disney animated classic Pinocchio (a cover of which is featured on White’s upcoming album) have been sung for generations and are still beloved today.
I asked the chanteuse how it felt to have her work immortalized — 100 years from now, kids will still be singing Hercules’ “Zero To Hero.”
“When you put it that way, it’s really remarkable,” White said, “that this little brown girl from Brooklyn, standing on her grandmother’s dining room table, singing some Shirley Temple something or other, and having my aunts and uncles applaud me. From there, going on to the Broadway stage, then the studio…”.
White paused, having seemingly been moved by the reflection on her life’s journey.
“There are a lot of people who grew up listening to Hercules, and when I meet them, it’s really thrilling. It’s an honor to be a part of the Disney family, to have done that kind of work, and to be remembered in that way.”
“It’s a lot of great music, a lot of people have grown up listening to it, and their kids are now listening to it. It’s pretty special.”
Disney brass should have known that White was not one to half-step on her vocals. A decade or so before Hercules, she stood-in for Jennifer Holliday in Dreamgirls.
Yeah, that Jennifer Holliday. “And I Am Telling You” — “You’re gonna love meeeeeee!” Jennifer Holliday!
“When you do a big show in LA, you end up doing a five show weekend: one Friday, two Saturday, and two Sunday,” White said. “And in a show like Dreamgirls and a role like Effie, it’s difficult to do five shows in a row. So [show producer] Michael Bennett had me come in to do the matinees. I was standing in for Jennifer for the evening shows, and I did the matinees.”
With that kind of resume, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that White is a perfectionist. She wants every note to be right, which is why she couldn’t commit to an exact release date for her new Get Happy album. When we chatted, she was still tweaking it.
“We’ve finished the album, and I’m waiting for the producer to send me the finals,” White said. “I’m very…picky. I don’t do well saying ‘we’re done’. I always want to do it again, thinking that that note’s not right, or that could be a little better. But we plan to release the album later this summer.”
As we’re all fatigued by COVID-19, the assault on black men, and the musings of a certifiable maniac in the White House, White’s Get Happy can’t be released soon enough! While White and I chatted, President Trump was planning a political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the worst state-sanctioned massacres in American history — on Juneteenth, no less.
Just as White doesn’t hold back in the recording studio or on stage, she didn’t pause before chiming in on our Commander In Chief!
“I want to encourage everybody to vote this fall,” White thoughtfully said. “Vote, vote, vote, vote! Because our lives depend on it. We’ve got to get Trump out! He needs to go!”
A lyric from Get Happy’s title track came to mind: Ya better chase all your cares away!
“Times are really strange right now, between the COVID-19 virus and the murder of George Floyd,” White reflected. “It’s a sad time, but it’s a challenging time and a hopeful time. It’s a time for us to heal. For me, music is a very healing force.”
“This new album is a balm. It’s a salve. It’s something that will hopefully get people back on track, to be loving, and to find the sunshine through the rain. That’s my hope, that people will embrace the happy and kinda move around in that, and let it wash over them.”
Look for Lillias White’s new album, Get Happy, later this summer!