"My Body" and Yours
BY GLORIA CAHILL
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 womens bodiesnot 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."
Colemans lyrics declare
My body is my business,
And nobodys 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 womens rights. It challenges listeners
to think about all the ways a womans body is her own business. One theme of the
song, and indeed of the entire show, is a womans right to be any size or shape and
still express herself as a vibrant, energetic, sexual being. This theme is underscored by
the shows 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 shows
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 Whites
understudy, stepped into the role of Sonja.
Finally, theres 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, its 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, andyou guessed
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
Whites portrayal of Sonja is nothing short of
stunning. Alternating between hilarity and pathos, she shows the characters
humanity, transcending the sordid side of her life as a prostitute. When she sings about
her life as a hooker, its 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 Ive
had in the theater in a long time."
White, whose weight has fluctuated through a range of
sizes, has a positive attitude about her bodyan attitude hard won. "After my
second child," she says, "I just couldnt 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 wasnt 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
didnt 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.
Hes outta here now. The point is, you just have to be who you are and to give what
you have to give. You cant let people judge you based on just one part of yourself,
because that is not all there is to a person." Whites attitude may be part of
the reason why she loves performing "My Body."
"Its one of my favorite songs in the
show," she says, "because your body is all you have about which you can say
This is mineif 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. Its 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."
Whites 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. "Ive found that healthy people
are happier, and if you are not happy with yourself, its generally not because of
your body weight. Its usually because youre not dealing with whats
inside your heart. Youre not loving yourself. Its 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."
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 jobs 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 Jerseys Paper Mill Playhouse. The
parallel with Whites career continued when Wilkins joined a touring company of Once
on This Island, another one of Whites earlier credits. In The Life,
Wilkins finally shares the stage with White. And when shes not sharing the stage,
shes going on as Whites 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
Whites 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 Whites 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? Shes outrageous. Shes wonderful. I mean, talk about positive self-image!
She makes more money than all of them, and she goes after what she wants. Although
shes very comical, the audience leaves feeling something more for her. I think
thats 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. Its
so wonderful to be part of something so great," she says. "The music is
wonderful. I think its the best Coleman has written since Sweet Charity. I
cant 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. Its assumed that if
youre heavy, you cant move. And we can do all kinds of things. I mean,
Im a heavy-set woman, but I take care of my body. I exercise, I stretch, and, of
course, I can dance! Why couldnt I dance? Why shouldnt 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 dont limit ourselves, then
maybe society wont, either. I think my role is doing a lot for large women,"
says Wilkins. "Maybe when its time to cast the next Broadway show, they
wont just say, Well, shes large, she cant dance.' Theyll
say, Can you dance?' And the answer is, We can do it all."
Beyond breaking down casting barriers, Wilkinss
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. Its 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 doesnt matter what size
you are. You are doing the same work. Sometimes youre working even harder. When we
break through these barriers, well see bulimia and anorexia drop," she says.
"Well give teenagers a chance to see that they dont have to be anything
Wilkinss 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. Thats so important. I
feel very blessed and very lucky. I have a lot of large friends, and I look at them and
think, You dont have to hide who you are. Youre 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 cant be on TV
because youre too heavy. You cant do this because of your size. But my
upbringing and my mother gave me this confidence that I can do anything. Even if
youre a size 5, six feet tall, and beautiful, there are always going to be people
who tell you that you cant do it. Its 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 Wilkinss attitude toward her own body,
its only natural that "My Body" would be a favorite song for this gorgeous
woman of size. "Its universal," she declares. "Its not just
about what you do in life, its about who you are. Its about our government
wanting to tell us what to do with our bodies. Its about our society telling us that
if youre not a size 5, with big breasts and small hips, youre not beautiful.
In a sense, its a cry out to the world saying, Look, this is crazy. My body can be
whatever I want it to be, because its who I am. Its an anthem for many things,
and I think that even if somebody hates the show, theyll pick up the message of the
song and say, Yeah, youre right. Its my body and nobody can tell me what
to do with it."
Katy Grenfell, who plays
Frenchie, is physically transformed when she dons her costumeso 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.
Grenfells 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 didnt 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
ODonnell, 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 youll never make it.' And then I got Grease, and heard from my fellow
actors, If you dont lose weight, youll never work.' So I didnt try
for anything else because I thought they were right. I struggled for a long time to lose
weight, and it didnt work. Finally, it was Rosie who said, Katy, screw it.
Look at me. Im working. Dont do that to yourself." It was
ODonnells 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 shows greatest
appeals is its diversity. "Ive seen other shows where everybody is stick thin.
And you know what? Its 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 dont see anything but
the costumewhich 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,
thats fine, too. I know what Im doing. I know who I am. / If youve
got a problem, I dont give a damn," Grenfell says, quoting from "My
For Grenfell, that song is rich in meaning. "It
represents the idea that, Yeah, I may not be a size 2, but Im going to be fine. And
it raises the whole range of womens rights issues. It evokes the pro-choice debate.
Basically, My Body brings up whatever Im in the mood to be mad about on
a given day. Its our favorite song. Its the I Am Woman, Kiss My
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, Ive 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 its so not me that I can just go out there and have fun with
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 its because when
were all onstage, for example, when we sing My Body or Working
Girls, the energy is electrifying. We feel it; the audience feels it. Its
because were such good friends backstage that when we get onstage, its
The camaraderie shared by the cast is also reflected in
the shows theme. "Its not just a show about hookers," Grenfell
stresses. "The play is really about women and what women do to help one
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 cant break out of." Maybe thats 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. Thats unsettling for those who dont 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.