by Eric Andrews-Katz -
SGN A&E Writer
LaChanze is the true definition of the phoenix. The characters she's played on Broadway have overcome tragic circumstances to find their way to a higher place. Whether she is playing a poor peasant girl (Once on this Island), a run away slave (Dessa Rose), or an abused woman (The Color Purple), she has shown courage and found her way to her feet. In her own life, as a 9/11-widow she has come full circle, and several years later sang at the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. After a triumphant run on Broadway, LaChanze recreates her role as Kate in the musical If/Then as it starts its national tour. The Seattle Gay News got to chat with this extremely talented lady.
Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?
LaChanze: I would have to say one of my very first influences was Diana Ross. That was when I was a really young girl. I would also say Lola Falana. When I was a kid, she was huge. She was pretty powerful. And, the fact that she was also incredible, I'd say, Shirley MacLaine.
Andrews-Katz: What was your audition like for Once on This Island?
LaChanze: That is so great you are asking me that. I went to an open call. I didn't have an agent then. 'Backstage' came out in the newspapers, this was before the Internet. I'd go through and circle the different jobs I was right for. I saw something called 'The Story of Ti Moune' and they wanted African-American girls that could sing and dance. I went in and I sang and danced for the third person (or the intern) for the casting agent at the time. I started low! I had five auditions and got to finally sign for Graciele Daniele, and got the job. I'd like to work with her one more time before she retires. I'm currently working on a project that I hope to pitch to her.
Andrews-Katz: In Dessa Rose you play a runaway slave that kills an abusive white man. It's an incredible book and a beautiful score, why didn't the show ever go on to Broadway?
LaChanze: I think that when it comes to stories about the African-American experience historically, during the period of slavery, there are two ways people do it. Either it's the kind of piece that can be seen once during African-American month, or for a unique audience. Broadway audience - as you can tell - aren't interested in going to see such a heavy production as that, regardless of how brilliant or beautiful it may be. People don't want to be reminded of anything traumatic like that. Even though there is redemption, survival and resilience [in Dessa Rose] it is still a story about slavery. Really it's about two women and how they survive at that horrible time in history, but again who wants to see a musical about that? A play is a different story. A musical, people want to be entertained rather than have to think about things that are traumatic.
Andrews-Katz: What are some of the positives and negatives of doing a Disney character?
LaChanze: The only one I did was Hercules, Terpsichore, one of the Muses. The positives are: It's DISNEY! It will be there forever. My children will see it, and their children will see it. I am in that catalogue of those who have participated in Disney animated features and musicals. I'm very proud of it. The negatives: It's kind of the same reason. Disney - as a member of the industry they have different rules. Once they have you in that cannon, you are sort of owned by Disney. There are things that Disney is allowed that other companies or producers aren't allowed. They should have to keep up with other standards, yet they get allowances. I think that they should all be on the same page; a union that's strong enough to give every producer the same rights.
Andrews-Katz: In 2004 you created Celie in the musical The Color Purple. How do you think the musical showed Celie's characteristics differently than in the film?
LaChanze: In the movie you have the option to discuss and reveal the different perspectives to tell their story. In the musical, we have limited time. But what we did have is music - and the emotions that Celie felt about the loss of her sister, the fear of Mister, about the relationship with the women in her life, we were able to express in song. That allowed us a more direct emotional dimension into their characters. You get more insight to what is going on with a little emotion, and we understand why she is feeling what she is feeling.
Andrews-Katz: Tell us about your work with One Egg a Day?
LaChanze: That's fascinating you asked me about that. You're the first one ever, thank you! I have a friend who started this awareness for Hunger in Haiti. She explained to me how many children are starving in Haiti, and if they only had an egg a day, they could survive. It would be enough. So many times they [charitable organizations] want so much more money, or time, and we never know if the resources are getting to the sources that need them. When you are talking about eggs, and giving eggs to a community, you know they are going to get to the people that need them. The children are starving. I thought, 'What a brilliant way to help.' My friend, Marine Aladdin doesn't have a lot of finances, but she has passion. She wanted to support the community that her family had come from. I'm a huge supporter of One Egg a Day. It's easy to get involved and the farms that donate to the cause get it directly to them. It's a great way to get children the food they need. We don't have to go through all the hoops this way; it's not funneled through other organizations, and everything goes 100% directly to the children. WEBSITE: http://www.oneegg.org
Andrews-Katz: In 2014 you created the role of Kate in the musical If/Then. How does this show make you think about your everyday choices in life?
LaChanze: The great thing, and one of the reasons I love doing the character, is that Kate is very outgoing and sort of a vivacious, carefree woman, who doesn't think about it. She has mono-vision, and only thinks about what she wants, where she goes, and living life to the fullest. And, damn it, who doesn't need to feel like that?! I needed a little Kate in my life. I never get asked to play optimistic roles (without tragedy), but Kate doesn't have a tragic life. There is slight drama with Kate, but nothing like what I've done in the past. It's a comedic role and I enjoy that. Now that I've done this musical, I have gotten inquiries for TV, which is nice to see.
Andrews-Katz: You sang 'Amazing Grace' at the dedication of the September 11 Memorial & Museum. How did this event personally affect you?
LaChanze: It was one of those moments when life is happening to me and I had nothing to do with it. It was the Eye of the Storm. I didn't really have a say in how it happened, but be a willing part of it. Consequently, and I didn't know until the moment I walked in, that I was going to be in the actual place where my husband was killed, I was walking in with my children, and it was like walking into a graveyard. It catapulted me back to the time [when it happened] and I was no longer singing for anyone but my husband. I was grateful for surviving the time and for the drive to continue on, it was a state of hard tragedy for my daughter and myself. We are surviving and are OK. It could have easily not have been that way, and so I'm grateful for that moment. Grateful to be able to pay tribute to him [my husband] and the others that were lost that day.
Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role, regardless of any limitations, what would it be and why?
LaChanze: It would have to be two roles. Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar - I think it is one of the most perfect roles. Judas was misunderstood and I think I could bring the vulnerability and humanity to him, especially being female. I'd also want to play Evita because of the power of that character. It's one of the best female roles written, and I would love the opportunity to play her! I think I could bring a level of depth to that role with my own personal dimensions. I would like to bring that character to life, I could identify with her.
Rhonda LaChanze Sapp was born in St. Augustine, Florida. She changed her name to LaChanze when she entered the professional theater world. LaChanze made it to Broadway with the show, Uptown...It's Hot!, but it wasn't until her third show, Once on This Island (playing the role of Ti Moune) that her talent exploded. She continued with the 1995 revival of Company, and took over the role of Sarah in Ragtime. It was the musical The Color Purple that gave LaChanze her Tony Award win for the 2005 Best Actress in a Musical. Movie lovers will know LaChanze as Rachel in The Help and from Leap of Faith. Her voice is clearly recognizable as Terpsichore from the hit Disney animated classic, Hercules.
LaChanze recreates her Broadway role of Kate (along with Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and James Snyder *) in Seattle Theatre Group's upcoming presentation of the musical, If/Then, which runs November 3-8 at the Paramount Theatre. *NOTE: LaChanze, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, and James Snyder will be appearing in only seven cities of the If/Then national tour. www.stgpresents.org.
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