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THE LIFE
Celebrating
"My Body" and Yours

BY GLORIA CAHILL

From Radiance Summer 1998

THE LIFE, which opened on Broadway this past spring at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, can be described as a musical about prostitutes, pimps, and porn. But anyone who stops there misses the point. The show is produced, authored, and composed by Broadway legend Cy Coleman, whose other credits include The Will Rogers Follies, Sweet Charity, On the Twentieth Century, I Love My Wife, and Barnum, to name a few. And although The Life certainly draws upon the world of prostitution for its story line, its themes are far more universal than one might expect. It is, in fact, a play about love, friendship, the strength of women, the will to survive, and the determination to maintain dignity and grace even in the most degrading circumstances.

The show is also about women’s bodies—not just bodies as commercial entities, but bodies as an expression of identity and self-determination. At the center of the show is a song entitled "My Body." Coleman’s lyrics declare

My body is my business,
And nobody’s business but my own.

Although the song clearly refers to the business of prostitution, even raising the question of legalized prostitution, it goes beyond that: the lyrics are about many issues concerning women’s rights. It challenges listeners to think about all the ways a woman’s body is her own business. One theme of the song, and indeed of the entire show, is a woman’s right to be any size or shape and still express herself as a vibrant, energetic, sexual being. This theme is underscored by the show’s bold casting choices, which exemplify diversity at its best.

Most discussions of diversity and multicultural casting stop at the level of race and ethnicity; this show incorporates not only cultural diversity, with a cast that includes African-American, Asian, Latin, and white performers, but also includes a wide variety of body types. Out of a cast of nineteen, the show’s nine women players run the gamut of shapes and sizes that includes the traditional long-legged dancer we have come to associate with the Broadway musical as well as several women not of that mold.

Lillias White, a woman of generous proportions, costars as Sonja, an aging prostitute who looks out for her best friend, Queen, played by Pamela Isaacs. Queen still has a chance to break out of the cycle of prostitution, and Sonja will do anything to help her friend realize that dream.

The show also features Sharon Wilkins, a supersize dynamo who dances up a storm in the role of Big Chi Chi, a minor character with a major impact. Wilkins receives enthusiastic audience response for her hilarious portrayal of an unabashed sex goddess who flaunts her size and makes more money than any of her slimmer colleagues. Wilkins has also been an outstanding success when she has, as White’s understudy, stepped into the role of Sonja.

Finally, there’s Katy Grenfell, a petite actress who, despite her thin figure, has faced an ongoing battle with colleagues who continually pressure her to become even thinner. Grenfell plays Frenchie, whom she describes as "the seventeen-year-old white-trash hooker." The actress undergoes a physical transformation for the role by wearing a costume that binds her across the waist to create the illusion of a large belly hanging over the belt of what she calls her "Daisy Duke cut-off denim hot pants." Offstage, however, it’s hard to believe that this woman struggles to maintain her own positive self-image.

I had the pleasure of meeting with White, Wilkins, and Grenfell to discuss their careers, their feelings about the show, and—you guessed it—their bodies.

 

LILLIAS WHITE

lillias_white.jpg (11270 bytes)Lillias White, who received the 1997 Tony Award for her portrayal of Sonja, is no stranger to Broadway. She has had starring roles in Cats, Dream Girls, Once on This Island, Barnum, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Off-Broadway, she received an Obie Award for her performance in Romance in Hard Times. On television, White has been seen in the dramas NYPD Blue and Law and Order. She was also a regular on Sesame Street, for which she received an Emmy award. In the Disney-animated film Hercules, she provides the voice for Calliope. As a solo performer, White has sung at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and appeared as a guest soloist at the White House

White’s portrayal of Sonja is nothing short of stunning. Alternating between hilarity and pathos, she shows the character’s humanity, transcending the sordid side of her life as a prostitute. When she sings about her life as a hooker, it’s an all-out showstopper. Her rendition of "Getting Too Old for the Oldest Profession" is full of comic brilliance and sheer power. The number, which takes place in the middle of the first act, often receives a standing ovation, and, according to White, singing it is "absolutely the most fun I’ve had in the theater in a long time."

White, whose weight has fluctuated through a range of sizes, has a positive attitude about her body—an attitude hard won. "After my second child," she says, "I just couldn’t lose weight. I was married to a man who wanted me to have a perfect body, so I tried like hell to make my body look like it had before the baby, but it just wasn’t happening fast enough. Finally, I had to let go of that idea, because I was making myself think bad things about myself. I was still the same wife and mother inside, and I still had the same feelings about him, but he didn’t like the way my body looked. I struggled with that for a while. And then I told him. I said, ‘You know what, the hell with this.’ And the hell with him. He’s outta here now. The point is, you just have to be who you are and to give what you have to give. You can’t let people judge you based on just one part of yourself, because that is not all there is to a person." White’s attitude may be part of the reason why she loves performing "My Body."

"It’s one of my favorite songs in the show," she says, "because your body is all you have about which you can say ‘This is mine’—if you want to sell it, if you want to decorate it, if you want to put it in a tight dress, a loose dress, or no dress. Nobody can take that away from you. It’s your body. That statement also means that you have to be accepting of what you are, of who you are, and of what you look like. I think that people should celebrate what they have and what they look like. And when God is finished with whatever work you have to do and the body dies, hopefully you have cultivated something inside your spirit, in your soul, that will be remembered and that will transcend the body, because this is just flesh."

White’s emphasis is on health rather than size. She exercises, eats healthy food, and, says, "I try to do a little something every day to break a sweat." She also has a devout faith in God and believes that spiritual health is every bit as important as physical health. "I’ve found that healthy people are happier, and if you are not happy with yourself, it’s generally not because of your body weight. It’s usually because you’re not dealing with what’s inside your heart. You’re not loving yourself. It’s all coming from the same source. So be healthy first, and if you are healthy and fit and able to climb stairs and run for a bus without dying, and you happen to be 220 pounds, then be 220 pounds."

 

SHARON WILKINS

sharon_wilkins.jpg (24675 bytes)The Life marks the Broadway debut of Sharon Wilkins, for whom working with Lillias White is a dream come true. When Wilkins was first starting out as an actress in New York, she made ends meet by working as a sales representative at Telecharge, the Broadway ticket service. One of the job’s perks was free tickets for Broadway shows. "I saw Lillias playing Effie in Dream Girls five times," she declares. Wilkins later went on to recreate the role in a regional production of Dream Girls at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse. The parallel with White’s career continued when Wilkins joined a touring company of Once on This Island, another one of White’s earlier credits. In The Life, Wilkins finally shares the stage with White. And when she’s not sharing the stage, she’s going on as White’s understudy.

The first time Wilkins was called upon to substitute for White in the role of Sonja, the pressure of being an understudy was multiplied by the fact that Shirley MacLaine was in the audience. (MacLaine had originated another classic Coleman role as the star of Sweet Charity.) But despite the jitters of that first performance, Wilkins did White proud. And Wilkins gained an even greater appreciation for White’s nightly portrayal of Sonja. "She deserves that Tony and ten more," says Wilkins. "She and Pam Isaacs (who plays Queen) hold the show together." Her understudy experience also reinforced White’s sense of the actors’ commitment to one another. "The cast made me feel like they all had their arms around me," Wilkins says. "To have such a wonderful cast egg me on and tell me I could do it meant so much. By the time I did my second performance as Sonja, I had a chance to really take a deep breath and feel myself in the role, and I had a ball!"

Wilkins also has a great time in her regular role as Big Chi Chi, who may be a secondary character, but is no less a favorite with the audience. Wilkins regularly receives standing ovations when she comes out to take her final bow. "It just goes to show that there really are no small parts," she laughs.

"I wanted to make her a whole person as much as possible within the context of the show. I asked myself, Who is Big Chi Chi? Why is she here? She’s outrageous. She’s wonderful. I mean, talk about positive self-image! She makes more money than all of them, and she goes after what she wants. Although she’s very comical, the audience leaves feeling something more for her. I think that’s the key to the show. If it were just a show about hookers and how they look and how they work, it would be another story. This play is about who these women are as people, and I think when the audience looks at them, they see real people, and it makes them stop and think."

The role of Chi Chi was actually created for Wilkins. "I showed up at the audition, and all these skinny girls with perfect bodies were there. The reason Cy Coleman wrote the part for me is because when I sang in my high register, I sounded like this French singer he knew, and her name was Chi Chi. It’s so wonderful to be part of something so great," she says. "The music is wonderful. I think it’s the best Coleman has written since Sweet Charity. I can’t say enough about him and the whole creative team."

As Chi Chi, Wilkins is poured into a skintight bustier, fishnet stockings, slit leather miniskirt, and platform shoes to perform dance numbers that exude boundless energy and sensuality. How does she feel about all that strutting? "I love it!" Wilkins exclaims. "You know what I love most about it? I think it challenges the way heavy women are viewed in our society. It’s assumed that if you’re heavy, you can’t move. And we can do all kinds of things. I mean, I’m a heavy-set woman, but I take care of my body. I exercise, I stretch, and, of course, I can dance! Why couldn’t I dance? Why shouldn’t I dance? I think large women hide themselves too much. If you like to dance, go take a dance class. Put your miniskirt on and go for it!

"I think we sell ourselves short too often. A lot of that has to do with how society views us. But if we don’t limit ourselves, then maybe society won’t, either. I think my role is doing a lot for large women," says Wilkins. "Maybe when it’s time to cast the next Broadway show, they won’t just say, ‘Well, she’s large, she can’t dance.' They’ll say, ‘Can you dance?' And the answer is, ‘We can do it all.’"

Beyond breaking down casting barriers, Wilkins’s goal is to help promote positive body image for teenagers. "We need to tackle the 90210 mentality," she says. "I want to tackle media images: all girls see mostly thin, thin women. It’s not natural and young girls are destroying themselves with drugs and bulimia to fit this image." Wilkins is hearted by the increasing number of positive images of large-size women, particularly among her colleagues on Broadway. "It means people are finally starting to see that it doesn’t matter what size you are. You are doing the same work. Sometimes you’re working even harder. When we break through these barriers, we’ll see bulimia and anorexia drop," she says. "We’ll give teenagers a chance to see that they don’t have to be anything but themselves."

Wilkins’s own positive self-image comes from her mother, who instilled in her the belief that she could do anything. "I am blessed with a mom who believes that I am beautiful no matter what. That’s so important. I feel very blessed and very lucky. I have a lot of large friends, and I look at them and think, You don’t have to hide who you are. You’re good in this body. This is a good thing. We are beautiful as we are." Nevertheless, Wilkins has faced her share of critics. "I did have people in my life who told me, ‘You can’t be on TV because you’re too heavy. You can’t do this because of your size.’ But my upbringing and my mother gave me this confidence that I can do anything. Even if you’re a size 5, six feet tall, and beautiful, there are always going to be people who tell you that you can’t do it. It’s hard sometimes. You can walk into an audition where they take one look at you and say, ‘Thank you for coming, good-bye.' You have to really believe in yourself and know what you really want to do."

Given Wilkins’s attitude toward her own body, it’s only natural that "My Body" would be a favorite song for this gorgeous woman of size. "It’s universal," she declares. "It’s not just about what you do in life, it’s about who you are. It’s about our government wanting to tell us what to do with our bodies. It’s about our society telling us that if you’re not a size 5, with big breasts and small hips, you’re not beautiful. In a sense, it’s a cry out to the world saying, Look, this is crazy. My body can be whatever I want it to be, because it’s who I am. It’s an anthem for many things, and I think that even if somebody hates the show, they’ll pick up the message of the song and say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. It’s my body and nobody can tell me what to do with it.’"

 

KATY GRENFELL

katy_grenfell.jpg (20186 bytes)Katy Grenfell, who plays Frenchie, is physically transformed when she dons her costume—so much so that I thought I was meeting with the wrong actress when we sat down to discuss the show. The skin-tight denim hot pants and midriff shirt she wears onstage, coupled with a slightly exaggerated posture and perpetual snarl, create the image of a tough, large woman.

Grenfell’s acting career began at the Municipal Theater of St. Louis, where she appeared in numerous musical productions. When she decided to move to New York, many of her friends and colleagues urged her to lose weight first, warning her that she would never make it in the Big Apple unless she was rail thin. But this dancer and former gymnast didn’t heed their warnings and landed a role with the original cast of the Broadway revival of Grease within months of arriving in New York. Her fellow cast members in Grease included Sam Harris, who plays Jojo the hustler in The Life, and daytime talk-show queen Rosie O’Donnell, who has waged her own battle with weight throughout her career. "The people in St. Louis always told me, ‘You need to lose weight or quit the business, because you’ll never make it.' And then I got Grease, and heard from my fellow actors, ‘If you don’t lose weight, you’ll never work.' So I didn’t try for anything else because I thought they were right. I struggled for a long time to lose weight, and it didn’t work. Finally, it was Rosie who said, ‘Katy, screw it. Look at me. I’m working. Don’t do that to yourself.’" It was O’Donnell’s encouragement that helped Grenfell work up the courage to audition for shows; eventually she landed the role of Frenchie in The Life.

For Grenfell, one of the show’s greatest appeals is its diversity. "I’ve seen other shows where everybody is stick thin. And you know what? It’s boring. They all look the same. I would rather go see a show like The Life, where everyone is different and you find something to love in each of them. In a chorus of paper-doll women, you don’t see anything but the costume—which is not that exciting. In real life, when you see a crowd walk by, you see all different kinds of people. Granted, I would love to be a size 6 and see what the world looks like from that point of view, but at the same time, if I never get there, that’s fine, too. ‘I know what I’m doing. I know who I am. / If you’ve got a problem, I don’t give a damn,’" Grenfell says, quoting from "My Body."

For Grenfell, that song is rich in meaning. "It represents the idea that, Yeah, I may not be a size 2, but I’m going to be fine. And it raises the whole range of women’s rights issues. It evokes the pro-choice debate. Basically, ‘My Body’ brings up whatever I’m in the mood to be mad about on a given day. It’s our favorite song. It’s the ‘I Am Woman, Kiss My Ass’ anthem."

Appearing in The Life has been a liberating experience for Grenfell, who came into the show feeling very insecure about exposing so much of her body onstage. "I was terrified," she says, recalling the first time she saw the sketches of what would become her costume. "I suddenly thought, Oh no, what have I gotten myself into? I mean, I’ve never shown so much cleavage in my life as I do in this show! But when I had my first costume fittings, I loved it, because it’s so not me that I can just go out there and have fun with it."

Like Wilkins, Grenfell plays one of the secondary characters and is delighted by the level of appreciation and recognition she has received in what some people might consider a small role. "I think it’s because when we’re all onstage, for example, when we sing ‘My Body’ or ‘Working Girls,’ the energy is electrifying. We feel it; the audience feels it. It’s because we’re such good friends backstage that when we get onstage, it’s great."

The camaraderie shared by the cast is also reflected in the show’s theme. "It’s not just a show about hookers," Grenfell stresses. "The play is really about women and what women do to help one another."

Star     Star     Star

All three actresses agree that prostitution serves as a metaphor for many situations that confront women in all walks of life. Says Grenfell, "You could lift the show up and put it down in Middletown, U.S.A., in a corporate office, and find women struggling with the same kinds of problems: sexual harassment, domestic violence, being unappreciated, whatever they face that keeps them stuck in a situation they feel they can’t break out of." Maybe that’s why the show appeals to such a broad cross-section of people.

Lillias White sums it up best when she says, "What it all boils down to is survival, and how these women help one another. I feel great about the fact that just about anybody can come into this theater and see themselves up there onstage. That’s unsettling for those who don’t expect to see themselves in a show about hookers on Eighth Avenue. I enjoy unsettling people," she says with a smile. "It makes them think." So does The Life.

GLORIA CAHILL is the director of community service at New York University. She is also a freelance journalist and fiction writer.

 

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