Broadway sensation, Tony award winning LaChanze discusses career and If/Then performance
Runs through December 6 at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre; opens December 8 at Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles
If/Then is described as a contemporary new musical that follows two distinct storylines in the life of Elizabeth, a city planner who moves back to New York to restart her life. When her carefully designed plans collide with the whims of fate, Elizabeth’s life splits into two parallel paths—Elizabeth’s interpersonal and professional journey is a simultaneous exploration of a modern woman’s choices as she faces the intersection of choice and chance.
Tony winner Idina Menzel (“Rent,” “Wicked”) stars as Elizabeth alongside Tony winner LaChanze (“The Color Purple”) as Kate. I sat down with LaChanze to discuss her role in If/Then and her celebrated career–
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: Tell me about this character and the amazing performance you give in If/Then.
LaChanze: I describe Kate as a neighbor that meets Elizabeth on her first night in town; Kate, being the typical New Yorker, doesn’t understand or respect boundaries. She invites herself over with a bottle of wine to help Elizabeth unpack. They get to know each other and become friends.
Talk2SV: There are few words to describe If/Then–an amazing journey with characters at a crossroads. Your performance was an enlivened reflection of a person too living a parallel existence. At the beginning of the show, I did not know who Kate was but by the time it ended, I felt she was a good friend to Elizabeth. What is it about the character that allowed you to transport yourself into her existence?
LaChanze: Kate is very positive, has optimistic energy and spirit. She is a force for good and a force for positivity. Often, I am cast in roles that aren’t always as optimistic and positive and resilient: it’s nice to be able to play a character that sees life as a glass half full and doesn’t have a lot of baggage. A character trying to change the world or has to overcome some extreme obstacle–she’s a character that walks through life expecting things to be good, expecting things to be positive, outgoing and uplifting. One of the things we realize is, throughout this existence, life isn’t always that way. Kate has to deal with that at some point.
LaChanze: She’s the best. It’s amazing to see how she manages everything from her personal life, raising her son, the incredible meteoric rise that she’s on and find time to have fun with friends. I think I admire that the most–she finds time for the people she cares about. She values her friendships, the people she works with and prioritizes those relationships. At least she does with me! I don’t’ know about anybody else.
Talk2SV: As an actor, what presents a bigger dilemma for you–being type cast, viewed in ways that you disagree with or embracing a role that totally goes against your morals and beliefs?
LaChanze: It depends on what is being asked of me, I’ve not been asked to do anything that goes against my moral structure as yet. But the great thing about being an actor is my role is not personal, not my own personal beliefs. I am embodying a character, a spirit…energy and I’m telling that story through my lens. I wouldn’t say I’m offended by roles; I can choose to play them or not.
There are times we (actors) are concerned about being type cast in roles–there is typecasting that exists because we are individual types. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that, if you are an apple and they are looking for an apple, that’s what they are going to get. I just have different opinions about it as opposed to fighting it and saying, ‘oh, this is horrible, why can’t I play different types of characters?’ I just think you need to be the best at who you are and hopefully the right roles will come your way according to the way you present yourself as an actor. A lot of times we’re apples and we want to be oranges. You’ve got to not worry about being an orange rather shine up your apple.
Talk2SV: Let’s talk possibilities, the basis of If/Then. What is your interpretation?
LaChanze: My interpretation of the story is one of hope–no one describes it that way and it’s not necessarily a way that you leave the theatre, feeling hopeful. But, in my opinion, it’s a story of hope and possibilities. It’s a story of choices we have, the power within those choices and the ability to let go. I think the story is about choosing, choosing well, not so well in some cases, and then letting go. Let the chips fall where they may, rarely do we get this subject matter tackled in musical theatre which is so powerful. Powerful not only as an audience member being entertained by the beautiful set, the dancing, the singing and the acting, you’re also leaving with a message that can reflect your own personal journey.
Talk2SV: Speaking of hope and possibilities, you have two beautiful teenage daughters. One only assumes that you have the hope and dream of unlimited possibilities for them…
LaChanze: Yes, definitely.
Talk2SV: How do your daughters view you apart from your celebrity?
LaChanze: To my kids, I’m not a celebrity at all; I’m mom (wide smile). Their friends think I’m super cool, think I’m the coolest mom of the mom circle but my children get embarrassed by me just like all children do. My daughters are 14 and 15…right now, my biggest challenge is keeping my daughters out of my closet, particularly my oldest daughter.
Talk2SV: Do they have ambitions similar to your own as far as singing and acting?
LaChanze: Yes, both daughters are creatively talented; one is definitely pursuing theatre as an actor and a singer. My other daughter is a musician, a song writer and a singer.
Talk2SV: As a multi-talented performer, what motivates you more, musical performance or dramatic dialogue?
LaChanze: That’s a tough question because I love them both. To me, a song is drama…it’s just being said to a melody. I love anything that expresses the depth of someone’s raw emotion. Whether it’s sheer joy, excitement, love, or deep anguish, pain, fear, I love the entire spectrum of emotions–it’s sort of a merge for me, to answer your question, I love them both.
Talk2SV: You have the distinction of being a Tony Award winner; how did it change your thinking about roles you wanted on the other side of winning it?
LaChanze: Thankfully, after winning the Tony, it puts me in a circle of women actors that I would not have been invited to be a part of had I not won the award. Now, I am able to see a broader variety of roles for African American women, while they may be limited in types of roles, there’s still a larger selection. I like to say that in theatre, I may be at the top of the list for actors…the top of the B List; in film, I’m at the bottom of the A List so it bumped me to another list. I’m still clawing my way up so that’s where it is for me right now.
Talk2SV: Last summer, I attended the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina. It’s quite a gathering of thespians and theatre enthusiasts.
LaChanze: I love the National Black Theatre Festival. I received an award a few years ago. When I can go and time permits, it’s one of my favorite weeks, I highly recommend going. It’s wonderful.
Talk2SV: One of the quintessential aspects of theatre is the opportunity to work until you can’t, ageism is not a factor, unlike film and television can be. Does the stage remain your preferred medium though you’ve mentioned film and television?
LaChanze: Most of my career has been theatre so yes, it is, but I do work on television and in film when the opportunity permits. I live in New York; film and television are primarily in Los Angeles although I am currently occurring on a TV show in NYC, it’s a different environment. Theatre is primarily New York, my career is based in theatre and that’s where the opportunities present themselves. Occasionally, I do get film and television work.
Talk2SV: Often, I’ll hear film and television actors say they go back to the theatre to refine their craft.
LaChanze: Yes. Theatre is the training ground; there is no room for do-overs in theatre which is what I love about it. I love having the exchange with a live audience every night; I love the different personalities of the audience. I love being able to try new things new within the roles that I play every night. Sometimes people will ask is it monotonous doing eight shows a week and sometimes the answer is ‘yes.’ Sometimes I don’t feel like doing it but for the most part, it’s a thrill to get out there every night with the actors, experiencing something live–in the moment–that will never be repeated.
Talk2SV: Let’s talk about other aspects of you; love your natural hair. When did you make that decision?
LaChanze: It’s interesting; I’ve been natural most of my life. In my very first leading role on Broadway (Once on This Island), I was young, in my mid-20’s, and I had natural hair. It started when I went to college [I had a curl back in the day], it wasn’t a Jheri curl, maybe it was the ‘S curl,’ I can’t remember it was so long ago. But, as a college student, I couldn’t afford it so I started working with my natural hair. When I got to New York, I was the only girl with short, natural hair back in the early 90’s. I just kept it going.
When I started working in film and television, I started to put weaves in, wear wigs–I started to wear extensions and doing all this stuff even through the run of The Color Purple. When that show ended, I decided to go back to my natural hair; I just think it’s more flattering on me. I just love how society is now embracing black women with natural hair in a way that we haven’t in the past. It [natural hair] works for me and if a casting agent doesn’t like it, they can throw a wig on me. When I was in ‘The Help,’ it was a period piece so they had to wig me but, they didn’t know this (pointing toward her hairstyle) was under it.
Talk2SV: You also have your own band. Tell me about your vocal act.
LaChanze: I am currently working on my own one woman show called, “Feeling Good,” basically it’s a journey of my life through song. I’ve had to take a break from doing my own personal tour but I’m setting up a 16-17 city national tour. The show has a tribute to Diana Ross among other selections. I have a five piece band; we tour and I sing songs that are relevant to my life and songs that leave you feeling good.
Talk2SV: Do you sing that particular song, “Feeling Good?”
LaChanze: I open with that song…
Talk2SV: Oh, I love that song…it’s difficult to sing.
LaChanze: It is, but, it’s powerful and beautiful. No one did it like Nina Simone but people don’t know that it came from a musical, it wasn’t written by her or anyone of her era.
LACHANZE’s career highlights
Broadway: The Color Purple (2006 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical), Once on This Island (Tony and Drama Desk nominations), Ragtime, Company and Uptown It’s Hot. Off-Broadway: Dessa Rose (Obie Award and Drama Desk Award nomination), The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (Drama Desk nomination) and Inked Baby. Other theatre credits: The Wiz, Baby, From the Mississippi Delta and Spunk. Film credits include The Help (SAG Award), Side Effects, Breaking Upward, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Disney’s Hercules, For Love or Money and Leap of Faith. Television credits include “Handel’s Messiah Rocks” (Emmy Award), “Lucy” (CBS TV movie), “Law & Order: SVU,” “Sex and the City,” “New York Undercover” and “The Cosby Show.” To learn more, visit her website at www.MsLaChanze.com of follow her Twitter @lachanze.
IF/THEN Opens at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, December 8, 2015.