Lili Whiteass takes to the road (with ’La Cage’)
The last time that a major touring production of "La Cage aux Folles" played Dallas/Fort Worth area (1987), "Baby Jessica" fell down a well, Bruce married Demi, Jimmy Baker and Gary Hart’s sex scandals made headlines, Reagan was president and a new show debuted on Broadway called "Les Miserables."
Two years ago, the third revival of "La Cage aux Folles" appeared on Broadway and received much acclaim, and several Tonys, for its scaled down version that focused more on the relationship between Georges and Albin. Although Tony-winning director Terry Johnson scaled down the production, he didn’t want to scale down the audience experience, so during rehearsals he approached the dancers (the soon to be "Les Cagelles") with the idea of placing one of the ’girls’ on the street to warm up the crowd and to transition them into the environment of a Saint Tropez nightclub.
Johnson had no idea that Lili Whiteass was one of his Les Cagelles. From opening night, through the entire Broadway run and now the national tour, Whiteass, with an ass-ist from actor/dancer Todd Lattimore, has become a pre-show fixture. Whiteass and the entire "La Cage aux Folles" company camp out at Fair Park through April 22nd.
EDGE Dallas had the opportunity to visit with Ms. Whiteass about her life and work and the entire "La Cage" experience. Although EDGE was not always clear on whether we were talking with Whiteass or Lattimore, we found ’her/him’ to be friendly and chatty, generous with her time and curious about what to expect in Texas.
From oil money
EDGE: Is this Lili or Todd?
Lili: (Laughs) This is both.
EDGE: I’m sitting here looking at a picture of you and Camille Grammer (from the "Real Housewives") in New York and you look fabulous.
Lili: Oh, thanks, that’s an old one. You should look at pictures on Lili’s Facebook for more current looks of Ms. Whiteass.
EDGE: I read on Lili’s Facebook page that she’s from Houston. I also did some research on Todd and discovered that he’s from New York. Which one is true?
Lili: Lili is from Houston; she’s her own character and has her own sensibilities. She’s from Houston; she’s from oil money. You know, the Whiteasses have a lot of money. Lili Whiteass was born on leap year; she only has a birthday every 4 years. She’s a real person and she’s also a fictional person; she’s fiction and nonfiction. She picks and chooses when to say actual information. It just depends on which way the wind is blowing.
EDGE: You’ve been a dancer and actor for some time. When and where did Lili first appear?
Lili: Lili was first born when I was in college at the Boston Conservatory. I got a job working at a nightclub in Boston. The only people that were performing in the gay nightclubs at that time were go-go boys and drag queens. I didn’t look like a go-go boy so that left me with drag queen. I began watching the drag queens and thought to myself, I can do what they are doing (beat) ’I can do that.’
Lili Whiteass was born in Boston back in 1995. My friend John Dellarocco was all about making these larger than life personalities. He went to New York and found that celebrities, real celebrities, were always out and about and in the nightclubs to entertain. When he came to Boston, he asked, ’Where are all the celebrities?’ There are none. So John created multiple drag personas aka pseudo-celebrities within the drag scene so that people would want to come and see them perform at the nightclub. And so Lili Whiteass was born.
She started as the door girl at a club called Avalon. She appeared outside of Avalon as the door girl and the owners just loved me. We would be sold out every week. It was like the Studio 54 days in the sense that there was a velvet row and if you didn’t have the look, or didn’t come with your posse or if you weren’t on the list you weren’t getting in. I would go up and down the line of people waiting to get in the club and I would say whatever I wanted to them and I was making the whole door staff laugh and crack up. I made their jobs so much more fun. So that was the very first inkling of Lili Whiteass being a door girl.
EDGE: That sounds like fun.
Lili: It was a blast. I got to tell people what I thought of them and got paid to do it.
Cut to New York City where I was in rehearsal for ’La Cage’ on Broadway. Our brilliant director Terry Johnson approached us in rehearsals with an idea of having a drag queen outside when the crowd is arriving. He really wanted the audience to feel, from the moment that they crossed the threshold, that they were in a nightclub setting and that they were in for an experiential night of theater. I was out on the sidewalk the very first preview. I knew immediately that I could do it. They didn’t know what they were getting themselves into but I knew what I was getting them into. (Laughs) So I was outside and then eventually I would make my way through the crowd inside and that evolved into me saying all this stuff inside.
I also do the announcements before the show begins. Once I was inside the theater, I began lip-synching to my own announcement before the show would start. I would wander through the crowd and then I’d be saying all these things to people sitting in the orchestra section and the rest of the audience would shut up. They wanted to hear everything I was saying. Eventually, that evolved into me sitting on the steps that were part of our set holding court doing a whole pre-show warm up act. Lili became a permanent fixture of the show. When I heard that the show was going on tour I knew I was not ready to give up the character or what I was doing because it was so much fun. Now I’m going across the country and saying fun things to fun people and seeing parts of the country that I’ve never seen before including.... Texas.
Likes high fashion...
EDGE: Were you with ’La Cage aux Folles’ for the entire run?
Lili: I was with the show during its whole run. I’ve been with the show for over 2 years now.
EDGE: Are you still having fun with the show and with Lili?
Lili: Oh, my God. I’m having a blast. Lily’s jokes change with whatever part of the country that we’re in or with whatever city we’re in. I make the material relevant to whatever holiday might be happening or what happened in the news that day. That’s great because it provides the show with a very relevant and timely production.
I also get to wear whatever I want. I set that up in New York so that I would wear my own clothes. I would get a stipend so that I could change my costume every single show as you have seen on Facebook. I do have a blast every night. Lili is always evolving. I told George (Hamilton) that when the tour ends, ’we’re going on the road, right? Me you and a little person piano player.’ Lili Whiteass, George Hamilton and a midget. Or a really old woman; some 80-year old woman playing the piano named Miss Kitty.
EDGE: How did you come up with the name Lili Whiteass?
Lili: That’s not an interesting story. At first I just hated it, I didn’t know if I wanted the word ass in my name. It’s so funny; all I have to do is say the name and people laugh. I’ve grown to love it. I have since discovered that Betty White is my illegitimate grandmother. Her ass dropped when she got into television. So I’m carrying on the family name.
EDGE: Did you have a picture in your head of what Lili looked like? Did you have a style icon or role model in mind?
Lili: Lili Whiteass is a combination of a super model and a truck driver. Maybe the truck driver is more her mouth; that’s where she likes to find a trick or two at a truck stop. She’s definitely a juxtaposition. She likes high fashion and she’s stupid. She’s not very bright.
EDGE: How long is Lili’s pre-show act?
Lili: I’m outside the theater 30 minutes before the musical begins. She’s on the curb and gutter, right where she belongs; she feels right at home out there. I can also smoke out there which is great. I go inside at a quarter of, and I do a twenty-minute set inside.
In the show?
EDGE: Then you go back and change and become part of the show?
Lili: No, I’m the swing. Literally, my job is to swing. But in Dallas I will be on the stage. People always say, ’oh we’ll see you in the show,’ and ’I say no you won’t, I don’t have any talent. I’m not in the show.’ Then they look at me with a puzzled face and say, ’Well, you’re pretty. You’ve got talent.’ Then I have to tell them that I’m kidding, I have loads of talent. I will be on for a Les Cagelle in Dallas. I’m only on stage if someone is injured, or sick or on vacation. However, Lili Whiteass is there every night.
EDGE: How long does it take you get ready?
Lili: It depends on what I’m going to be wearing. I’m going to be doing a lot of country looks while in Texas. I’ll be doing a lot of Native American dress. Usually it takes about an hour. My smartass answer is " I did this in five minutes; I’m not wearing any makeup."
EDGE: What is the toughest part about being Lili?
Lili: There is no tough part of being Lily. She’s a wonderful character. She is like an 80-year old woman... she gets to say whatever she wants and she gets away with it. I say something to someone that puts him or her down and then they say, "Can we have a picture."
EDGE: Do you ever have an audience that doesn’t get it?
Lili: It’s been very eye-opening traveling across the country. There are different areas that so get it and so engaged from the first thing I say and they love it. And then there are others that are like, huh? But then when you play Naples, Florida, which they call God’s waiting room, the people are a thousand years old; they’re just lucky to be alive and smiles don’t translate into laughter. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth; well, more like pulling gums.
In West Palm Beach, they weren’t listening to Lili Whiteass. They just kept talking and talking. Chat. Chat. Chat. And I said, I won’t be ignored.
On tour, I have a microphone and spotlight, which I didn’t have on Broadway. On tour, Lili got an upgrade and got her own wig designed for her and a microphone and a spotlight, it really is a stand up act. For Lili Whiteass, my out of town tryouts were Broadway, and now she’s really doing her show and doing her thing. Who’s to say that she might not have her own show one day?
EDGE: Anything is possible.
Lili: From your lips to God’s ears. And I’m definitely going to have my hair higher in Texas. Usually I have a nice cross between Republican wife/news anchor but when we come to Texas, it’s going to be more like a bomb exploded so that I can look competable with the other ladies.
Ever get heckled?
EDGE: Do you ever get heckled?
Lili: Yeah, I do. However, you should never go up against a drag queen that has a switchblade for a tongue and an open live mike. You just don’t do it. A drag queen that has a little bit of an IQ and a live, open mike is going to always win.
EDGE: You’ve been successful as Lili Whiteass and as Todd working on Broadway in ’42nd Street’ and ’La Cage.’ You’ve also had the opportunity to work with some really big names. Who at this point in your career would make you star struck?
Lili: I’m not star struck at all. I look at them as people. They are just people doing great work, but it’s the same work that I do. I hope to do great work myself. I admire them. I would be more awestruck with the person who cures AIDS. Or Bill Gates. He is mind blowing to me. But I do have to say that meeting Barbara Streisand was fabulous. It was like meeting the Pope. She was amazing.
EDGE: In your biography you mention your husband Brian. What does he think about Lili?
Lili: Who? Just kidding.
My husband and I have been together for 17 years. We’ve been legally married for nearly seven years. We were one of the first couples in the history of the US that were legally married. We live in Massachusetts; it’s been legal for 8 years. He’s amazing. He’s a creative person too. He’s my rock. He gets what I do and he always encourages me and that is why it lasts because with any relationship there has to be a mutual respect and love for one another and we do we have that. I’m really lucky. But marriage takes a lot of work. A marriage is a work in progress. It’s like walking by a Barney’s window. There are times that it’s shiny and beautiful and other times the shades are pulled. Sometimes you just have to put in the work.
I do get on a political soapbox when I am doing Lili Whiteass because it’s an election year. When history looks back, it will see that we’re really in the midst of our human rights struggle. I went to the civil rights museum in Memphis and I just hope that some day we can say that this is how it all happened, which states came on first, last, etc. It is interesting to see that in history, every single person or group has had to fight for his or her equal rights.
EDGE: I can tell that you are passionate about politics. Is there anything else that you are passionate about?
Lili: Interior design. I am just a total stereotypical fag. I love interior design, I love fashion, I am all right brain. My husband and I live in an 1892 Lutheran church that we converted into our home. Who knows what the next project will be? We’re thinking about moving back into Boston. We’re always doing some sort of project or making something beautiful.
EDGE: Is there anything else you would like our Dallas readers to know?
Lili: I’m just so excited to come to Dallas. I just love that Neiman Marcus is right there because I’m a shopaholic.
EDGE: I have a confession to make; I’ve never seen a production of "La Cage"
Lili: You’re in for a real treat. I left New York City the first time because I didn’t get the "La Cage" 2004 revival. I opened my own tour called "The Lily Pad" on Cape Cod. This revival brought me back to Broadway. (Director) Terry Johnson is so smart. He’s brought a different perspective to the material. Terry’s perspective is really ingenious because it focuses on the play and the family and the story. I’m glad you will get to see this version.
"La Cage aux Folles" plays through April 22, 2012 at The Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 1st Avenue, Dallas, TX 75210 . For more information visit the Dallas Summer Musicals’ website.
You can catch Lili Whiteass on any of the following dates on the "La Cage Aux Folles" National tour: Houston, TX April 24th-May 6th; San Antonio, TX May 8th-13th; Tempe, AZ May 15th-20th; Charlotte, NC May 29th-June 3rd; Orlando, FL June 5th-June 10th; Ft. Lauderdale, FL June 12th - June 24th; Los Angeles, CA July 10th-July 22nd; Costa Mesa, CA July 24th-Aug 5th. For more details about the tour, visit the show’s website.