When the final curtain drops at the end of the new hit Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow and the applause is still echoing in her ears, Terri White can scarcely believe any of it is real. A year ago, she was homeless and sleeping in a Greenwich Village park.
In September 2007, I was in Manhattan for work. On my evening off, I stopped at my favorite piano bar, Don’t Tell Mama, for a few drinks and some tunes.
In between sets of the Don’t Tell Mama regulars, this strangely recognizable women got up and sang “Everything Must Change,” and I knew that voice. And then it hit me: She was Sister Mary Hubert from the video of Nunsense starring Rue McClanahan, where she sang a rousing rendition of “Holier Than Thou.”
White, who had a bi-weekly gig at another piano bar (where she also washed up and stored her clothes), was earning $32 every other week – money she spent on ramen noodles and for her cellphone service. Going on fruitless auditions, she admits, “I was in bad shape.”
Of course, I had no clue of her impending situation. After her set, she mingled with the crowd, and I leaned back from my bar stool and told her, “I loved you in Nunsense!” She hugged me and jokingly told me to get Nunsense 2. Everyone at the bar knew her and loved her. There was such respect for her that evening when she performed.
Between gigs on Broadway and singing with Liza Minnelli, Ms. White had always worked for tips in piano bars around the West Village. She was a regular at 88’s until it closed, then found a new home at Rose’s Turn on Grove Street — until it, too, closed.
How sad, all around. Piano bars are in trouble, or, quite possibly on the verge of extinction. A handful in Chicago have closed, too. I find them to be magical places with warm, funny people who just want to be entertained and have a good time. And, from my experience, most piano bar singers are absolutely amazing performers. Anne Steele anyone?
In Florida, she met Donna Barnett, a stately 62-year-old jewelry designer — and, like Ms. White, a cigarette fiend, a fan of road trips and musicals and Maker’s Mark. The two fell in love, and moved in together. When the call came for an audition for an Encores! concert performance of “Finian’s Rainbow” (a predecessor to the Broadway production), Ms. Barnett paid her airfare back to New York. After months of coming close, but ultimately hearing “No thank you” — she auditioned nine times for “Chicago” — Ms. White landed the part of “Finian’s” Dottie.
I’m glad Ms. White’s found success and love. No one deserves it more.