But now, she's back in the spotlight, in a beloved musical and belting out the showstopper "Necessity" – coincidentally, about life's ups and downs.
"I feel like I've been shot out of a cannon," says White, 61. "It really has been a dream."
Stark ContrastWhat a difference a year makes. For three months in 2008, White, 61, a performer since her childhood in Palo Alto, Calif., was "so down I was doing chin-ups from the gutter," she says. She had broken up with her longtime partner, and, as piano bars in New York City closed down, couldn't find enough singing jobs to pay her rent. She lost her apartment.
Depressed, White – who in 1980 costarred with Glenn Close and Jim Dale in Barnum and sang in Liza Minnelli's Radio City Hall show – was too embarrassed to seek help from social services and only told a few friends of her situation. She crashed on a few friends' couches, but mostly slept on a bench in New York City's Washington Square Park.
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."
Help ArrivesOne chilly night in October '08, New York Police Officer David Taylor, who met White while walking his beat near the bars where she sang, saw her familiar figure coming down the street. But as Taylor drew closer, White, always so upbeat and chatty, was nearly unrecognizable. "Her face was ashen, she looked terrified and depressed," says Taylor.
That night, Taylor called a mutual acquaintance in Jersey City, N.J., who agreed to let White stay with him. Days later, an old friend invited White to sing at her nightclub in Key West, Fla.
"That was a real-life savior," White says. "I got back on my feet."
Look to the RainbowWhile there, she met jewelry designer Donna Barnett, and the two of them moved in together. When White heard about auditions for Rainbow – a 1947 show about leprechauns, a pot o'gold and Southern bigotry that White first performed in when she was 8 years old – Barnett bought her a plane ticket back to New York.
Nailing the plum role of the matriarch Dottie, White's life couldn't be better. She and Barnett recently had a commitment ceremony at the theater and her reviews in the show have been raves.
"My heart is rich. This is what I've worked for all my life," she says. "It has been a wild ride."