Terri White’s Great White Way (and a perfect martini!)

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Terri White (center) as Stella Deems in the hit Broadway revival of Follies. White led the ensemble (including Bernadette Peters, left, and Jan Maxwell, right) in the rousing number “Who’s That Woman (Mirror Mirror).” Photo by Joan Marcus Below: White can scale down her Broadway belt to cabaret size, as she’ll do at the Rrazz Room on July 10.

Palo Alto native Terri White grew up and became a Broadway star, thanks largely to her big break in 1972’s musical hit Two Gentlemen of Verona, which she also performed on tour at the Geary Theater. There have been dramatic ups and downs in White’s career – it is a theater career, after all – but her journey has brought her back to the Bay Area several times, including a double stint in 1994 at the then-named Theatre on the Square in Make Someone Happy composer Jule Styne’s last hurrah (White remembers it more as Make Someone Run because it wasn’t Styne’s best work; he died several weeks after the show), followed by Nunsense 2.

But White’s most memorable San Francisco stage experience, at least until she makes her cabaret debut July 10 at the Rrazz Room was in the Cy Coleman musical Barnum in which she originated the role of Joice Heth (singing the memorable song “Thank God I’m Old”). The touring production was playing the Golden Gate Theatre, and on this particular day, the 49ers were just about to beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl.

“Someone in the audience had a transistor radio and yelled out the winning score,” White recalls. “The show stopped for a good 20 minutes, with everyone cheering and horns honking outside and all the stagehands screaming downstairs. Poor Jim Dale was stuck up there doing shtick for 20 minutes. He couldn’t do anything else.”

Such interruptions aren’t likely to happen during White’s cabaret gig, The Great White Way, which, despite its name, is not just a round-up of White’s Broadway career, though there will be some representation from some of her more recent work such as the revival of Finian’s Rainbow. Alas, White will not be performing “Who’s That Woman (Mirror Mirror),” her show-stopping number from the recent Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. She’s still under contract to that production, which just closed its run in Los Angeles, and cannot sing its songs. But there are plenty of other songs to sing, including one she wrote herself.

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To paraphrase another song from Follies, good times and bum times, White’s seen them all and my dear, she’s still here. Along with high-profile gigs like Barnum or Ain’t Misbehavin’ in which she understudied Nell Carter, White kept her chops up slinging drinks and singing up a storm in some of New York’s best piano bars like Rose’s Turn and The Duplex. By 2008, things had gotten tough for White and she was, for a period, homeless. But with the help of a NYPD officer who happened to recognize her, she got herself together and was soon back on Broadway.

One thing that helped her? Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. “That book helped me to re-focus. Instead of woe is me, I said thank you to the universe,” White says on the phone from L.A. “I had my eyes closed to the world and to my surroundings and to myself. I realized I had to turn that around. Only the best has happened since then. I have a gorgeous wife, a great life and three Broadway shows in the last 32 months. I’m doing what I wanted to do. When I was negative, I was closing off to what the possibilities could have been. I’m not a bad person, though I thought I was. Apparently I’m not. I continue saying thank you and keep going forward with that.”

The gorgeous wife White mentioned is Donna Barnett, and the two got married, rather famously, just after New York made same-sex marriage legal. They did not do it in a small way – on the contrary, they did it with two other couples on stage at the St. James Theatre after a performance of Hair.

“It was such an emotional experience,” White recalls, what with the audience crying, the couples crying and the Hair tribe crying. “But what I loved is that after the show, they announced that there would be a wedding ceremony on stage, and you didn’t see one person leave that theater.”

White’s big news is that she and Barnett are moving to Los Angeles. While performing in Follies there, she got a new agent and is excited to remind the Hollywood powers that be just who she is and what she can do. “They tend to forget who you are if they can’t see you,” White says. “So we’re giving LA a try.”

Even with all her success, in life and on stage, White say she never strays too far from a local piano bar. “I love to socialize and be with friends,” she says. “In piano bars, there’s no fourth wall. You can connect directly to people’s hearts and minds. Cabaret is a lot like the piano bar experience except people are actually coming specifically to see you.”

Oh, and after all those years in piano bars, White still makes a pretty mean martini. Here’s her recipe:

Terri White’s Perfect Martini
Use vodka or gin – whatever you prefer.
Swirl the martini glass with vermouth, then dump the vermouth.
Stir (never shake) your vodka/gin (or better yet, keep it in the freezer).
Rather than just pouring the liquor over the lemon twist, rub the edge of the glass with the twist first so that with each sip you get the citrus essence without it being overbearing.

[bonus video]
Here’s Terri White tearing it up in “Who’s That Woman (Mirror Mirror)” from the recent Broadway revival of Follies.

Terri White’s The Great White Way is at 8pm, Tuesday, July 10, at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.

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