Contributor Jim Gladstone chats with Tony winner LaChanze.
“I Hear A Symphony,” is one of the dozen or so Diana Ross songs that singer-actress LaChanze reinterprets in Love Hangover, her cabaret show, coming to Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco December 20 and 21.
It nods to both LaChanze’s past as “a little brown girl, snapping my fingers and swinging my hips to Diana Ross records on the radio” and a future in which she hopes to expand on her musical theater career—she won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Performance by a leading actress in a musical for the role of Celie in The Color Purple—by performing as a concert artist, something fellow stage stars Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel have done with great success in recent years. (LaChanze will star with Menzel in Broadway’s 2014 If/Then by Tom Kitt and Bryan Yorkey [Next to Normal]).
“I’d love to do some of this material backed by a full orchestra,” says LaChanze, of her cabaret show’s dramatically rearranged Ross hits. “I’ve done a couple other cabaret acts—Broadway tunes, a Great American Songbook set. I’m building up material to work into concerts.”
Ironically, while Diana Ross herself customarily plays large venues (She played the nearly 3,000-seat Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco in August), the coy coos and plaintive sighs of many Ross hits are probably better suited to the intimate scale of cabaret.
“I really like the cabaret setting,” says LaChanze, “for the storytelling aspect and for the opportunity to take liberties with the ways the songs are usually sung. I don’t want anyone to think they’re coming to see me do an imitation of Diana Ross or tell the story of her career. I sing very differently, and the stories I tell in this show are about the significant moments that Diana Ross’ music has intersected with my life; the times and the feelings that each song reminds me of.”
Asked about her act’s origins, LaChanze recounts noodling with an original thought of paying alliterative tribute to three icons: Diana Ross, Diane Schuur, and Dinah Washington. “It didn’t end up pulling together that well, and in researching Diana Ross’ songs, and listening to more them carefully, I realized that a lot of the lyrics hadn’t stuck with me the way the music had. I found myself connecting with so many of them. She recorded these songs across five decades that that pretty much coincided with the decades of my life.”
LaChanze, who caught the theater bug as a child, now has two daughters of her own, ages 12 and 13, who she says are Broadway and Beyonce buffs. “In popular music,” she says, Beyonce is about the only performer today who is iconic in the way that Michael Jackson or Diana Ross was when I was a kid.”
As to making musical theater appeal to a new generation of fans (whose Mom isn’t a leading lady), LaChanze says “That’s why I’m so excited about If/Then. It’s totally contemporary in its musical styles and in its storytelling. When we did it in DC there were always teenagers crowding the stage door after the show. They may come to see it because of Idina or me or Tony [Anthony Rapp, of Rent fame], but they really get the way this show works It happens in two parallel universes at the same time and some adults have trouble following it. The biggest audience for this show is going to be from 15 to 40, which is what Broadway needs.”
If/Then begins previews at the Richard Rodgers theater on March 5.
LaChanze and company in “The Color Purple.”