Living La Vida LaChanze: Tony and Emmy Winner Talks Broadway Return in If/Then
By Karu F. Daniels
Award-winning actress LaChanze talks with Playbill.com about returning to the Broadway stage for the first time in almost ten years in the new musical If/Then.
Ask any old-school theatre purist about the state of today's industry and they may tell you that true theatregoers are a dying breed and the business is in need of something new, fresh and exciting. Well, all of those adjectives are appropriate descriptions for Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's ambitious new musical, If/Then, which opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre March 30.
Though a sprawling vehicle seemingly designed to showcase the ceiling-scaling vocal prowess of Tony Award winning Wicked star Idina Menzel, the show features the talents of other veteran Broadway faves including Anthony Rapp (Rent), Jerry Dixon (Once On This Island) and LaChanze — a fiercely talented Tony Award (and Emmy Award)-winning leading lady, herself.
But for this show, the single-monikered, pint-sized powerhouse is playing the background in a supporting role. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I said, 'You know, I like this, I like this character, I like this role, I like the fact that it's supporting," LaChanze told Playbill.com. "It brings me back into the theatre without having to carry the show and I still could get back in and be with my daughters at the same time, to keep my eye on my 14-year-old and my 12-year-old."
The idea of "carrying a show" is nothing new for the St. Augustine, Florida native whose first gig on Broadway came in the form of tap dancing in the short-lived Maurice Hines revue Uptown, It's Hot in 1986. Since then, LaChanze's resume has become rich with epic musicals and robust roles, such as her breakthrough Once On This Island (which she was nominated for a Tony Award for Featured Actress in a Musical back in 1991), and other noteworthy work in Dreamgirls, Company, Ragtime, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, Dessa Rose and Oprah Winfrey's 2005 theatrical adaptation of The Color Purple, for which she won the Leading Actress in a Musical Tony Award.
Since then — as far as the Broadway scene goes — the single mother of two pubescent girls has been virtually quiet. But unlike some other one-time Tony Award winning divas, LaChanze assured that her absence wasn't due to holding out for the next big superstar role; it was essential for her family development.
"I know it's been almost 10 years," she said. "I left because my girls were so young and they were getting to that place where they needed their mom around more. They weren't babies any more, I couldn't just like hire a nanny and have her help me out.
"I had just got out of a relationship with someone that didn't end well," LaChanze, whose first husband perished in the Sept. 11 2001 terror attacks, said. "So there was a lot of stress in my personal life that I was managing as well as trying to raise my daughters."
The project also had to be worthwhile, she noted. "I mean coming back to the stage is a full-on commitment, so if you're going to do it, it has to be the right project. I did a couple of small things here and there that didn't keep me away from it for so long... I did some small theatre things, but nothing too distracting. I couldn't do a Broadway commitment until I found the right project."
In the spring of 2013, choreographer and performer Ken Roberson directed her in string of sold-out shows at 54 Below entitled Love Hangover: LaChanze Sings Diana Ross. In 2010, she co-authored the children's book "Little Diva" about a precocious child with big dreams of becoming a Broadway star like her mother. In September 2008, her performance, alongside J. Robert Spencer and Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, of Handel's Messiah Rocks at Emerson College's Cutler Majestic Theatre in Massachusetts, was filmed and later broadcast on PBS.
When If/Then first came around, LaChanze had just completed a workshop Hal Prince's Prince of Broadway that she said she "really wanted to do and was already committed to start in 2012." But then that got pushed back until 2015, and within a month of learning of that show's postponement she met with If/Then's director Michael Greif. And the rest was history.
"Truthfully I wanted to do something different from the kind of work people know me as doing, which has primarily been period pieces or parts that are dealing with high-level drama and I wanted to do something that wasn't and this was the direct opposite of that for me," she said. "I wanted people to see that: Yes, LaChanze is also funny... So here, there is a larger audience, a larger platform and I thought it was a great opportunity to show people that I do have a comedic sense and that I can be seen as a modern woman still able to deliver in terms of vocally and dramatically because there are some moments where I have to show some depth of the character but more importantly I can be funny. And I saw this as a great opportunity to play that."
Her character Kate is a spunky lesbian who shows Menzel's Elizabeth the ropes of New York City while encouraging and supporting her decisions along the way — in both of the alternative existences of the storyline. It's not LaChanze's first time at the same-gender-loving rodeo, either. Her last big starring role on The Great White Way was in The Color Purple, which, unlike the Steven Spielberg-directed cinematic epic, delved more closer to the actual Alice Walker novel and its lesbian love story.
"You know it's so funny because people ask me the [lesbian] question a lot and I'm often surprised by it because that is not what I'm focusing on in terms of the character," she chuckled. "Personally, I am not a lesbian. So I don't have that to pull from if you know what I mean. I don't really identify with what it must feel like to live as a lesbian in the world. The only thing I can relate to is being in love with someone."
"I have loved fiercely in my life — a few times," she continued. "So that's all I can pull from. And knowing that it's this woman who loves this woman madly, that is what I can use as a source. You know as an actor, you go in your own personal life and pull from your personal life so that's what I do. But I don't know. Am I playing it well?" she quipped. "Maybe I should've thought about it more deeper or more deeply but I just thought it's all love, love of woman, love of man so just love this woman. That's how I thought of it. I just don't have any issues with that fact that I'm playing a lesbian."
Ironically, Menzel also played a lesbian in her breakout role as Maureen Johnson in the theatrical and movie versions of Rent.
But the two Tony Award winners (who are both doing their first Broadway show after winning the coveted statuette) didn't just bond over those particular career parallels; LaChanze said they also share single motherhood. "We talk about that all the time. She talks a lot to me about being concerned about being the lead and having a five-year -old at home and what's that like. And that's where I was when I was dong The Color Purple. My daughters were five and three. And it's very difficult because your attention can be just so torn."
"Naturally you want to be the best mom you can but then also you want to be the best performer you can," she explained. "So we spend a lot of time talking about that balance and how to give ourselves some breaks sometimes because the mommy guilt can really be kind of stressful. So I help her sometimes understanding that it's like the balancing act and knowing that it's okay now. It's not the quantity of the time, it's the quality."
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