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Viva LaChanze

The Tony Award winner discusses her American Songbook concert, coming back to Broadway, and her work in The Help. logo
(© Peter Chin)
LaChanze first burst onto the Broadway scene 25 years ago in the ensemble of Uptown… It's Hot, gained national attention with her award-winning work as Ti Moune in Once on This Island, and earned the Tony Award in 2006 for her performance as Celie in The Color Purple. Outside of Broadway, she's worked in film, television, cabaret, and even earned an Emmy Award for her performance with the Boston Pops in Handel's Messiah Rocks.

On Thursday, January 19, she will give a solo concert as part of Lincoln Center's popular American Songbook series. TheaterMania recently spoke to her about the concert, coming back to Broadway, and her work in the acclaimed hit film The Help.

THEATERMANIA: Why did you want to do this concert?
LACHANZE: Well, I had a big milestone birthday last month and I wanted to do something to celebrate. Also, the last time I did American Songbook was right after 9/11 [when her husband died in the World Trade Center tragedy] and so much has happened since then, and getting to this place in my life has been a huge journey. So I wanted to take the audience on that journey with me.

TM: So is your life the theme of the show?
LC: It will be semi-autobiographical, but it's really about what love looks like at different ages -- the heartbreaks, the euphoria, the infatuation, the wanting of sex. There will be good emotion and bad emotion, and some humor as well.

TM: What will be you singing?
LC: I am doing some songs from shows I've been in, like "The Human Heart" from Once on This Island, even though I didn't do it in the show; "Another Hundred People," from Company; and "I'm Here" from The Color Purple. I am also going to do some songs usually sung by white males. I'm also doing a song about parenting called "In My Daughter's Eyes," and some of what I call contemporary classics, such as "Everything Must Change," "Summer Soft," by Stevie Wonder, and "Both Sides Now," by Joni Mitchell. And I am doing a song by Pink called "Glitter in the Air," but in a very different arrangement. I think we often get distracted by her persona, but she's one of our most brilliant songwriters.

LaChanze in The Color Purple
(© Paul Kollnik)
TM: It's been over five years since you've been on Broadway. Why?
LC: My children were 2 and 4 when I started on The Color Purple and when I finished they were 6 and 8, and that turned out to be a long time for their mommy to be gone. It's why I didn't renew my contract. I could tell they were struggling with my absence from home, and I wanted to stabilize them for a while. Broadway is a true time commitment. But they're old enough now -- they're tweens -- so I am working on a project this summer that should bring me back to Broadway pretty soon. I can't say what it is.

TM: You had a small but pivotal role in The Help as Rachel, the daughter of Cicely Tyson's character. Was that a good experience?
LC: Absolutely. Tate Taylor was the best director I've ever worked with. He was so good to the actors; he allowed the room to change if an actor felt a scene wasn't working.

TM: Were you intimidated about working with Cicely Tyson?
LC: I wasn't. She was regal but friendly, and commanded respect from everyone on the set. And she was, and continues to be, very generous to me. I wish we had more time together on screen; they cut some of our work out. There were originally four scenes scheduled, but only one stayed in. And that took 14 hours to shoot.

TM: Are you surprised how popular the film is, and how well it is doing during awards season?
LC: I think the message to take from its success is that the audience in this country is finally ready to deal with real issues. I think we've had enough escapism -- particularly in film -- and we're ready to explore more human situations. I also think the movie, and the book, showed all facets of the servant-master relationship, and dealt with things we couldn't talk about in the past. The author, Kathryn Stockett, was able to tell the truth about those relationships -- for example, that black servants could love the white children they cared for -- and that was so courageous. I think The Help affirms that it's okay to love under any circumstances.

TM: As an Emmy Award-winning and Tony Award-winning African-American actress, do you think winning those awards made a difference in your career?
LC I would like to say awards matter more than they do. I think within the African-American community there is a sense of pride when one of us wins that kind award. And yes, now I have a title, Tony Award winner, that has helped bumped me up in the film world so I can be seen with actresses like Halle Berry and Viola Davis. But every industry has its tiers. If Viola wins the Oscar for The Help, maybe she'll move up to an even higher tier.

For tickets to LaChanze's American Songbook concert, click here.

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