Five Lives in 15 Broad Strokes: An Interview With LaChanze
Through a one-woman show and new EP, "Feeling Good" celebrates the multi-faceted life of Tony Award-winning performer LaChanze.
"Listen to what's playing right now," whispers LaChanze. She's perched atop a plush settee at Harlem's WXYZ Lounge, recalling her tenure in the touring company of Dreamgirls, when an unmistakable vibrato suddenly suffuses the air like warm mist. "Birds flying high, you know how I feel." It's a voice so regal that it changes the pulse of our conversation. It's Nina Simone.
Only moments earlier, LaChanze was explaining how her one-woman show, Feeling Good, had evolved from its original presentation at Joe's Pub (The Public Theater) to a revised and revamped version slated to premiere at the Highline Ballroom in New York. It's more than mere coincidence that Simone's classic take on "Feeling Good" should start playing. It's as if the "High Priestess of Soul" herself has conferred a blessing on LaChanze.
There are several reasons for LaChanze to feel good when the Highline's sold-out crowd gives her a standing ovation the following week. Directed by Tamara Tunie, Feeling Good incorporates original music, choice covers, and spoken word sequences to capture moments from LaChanze's childhood through the present day. The audience not only commends her stunning vocal performance but also how courageously she bares her scars through stories and songs, from surviving child abuse to losing her husband in the 9/11 attacks. She's arrived at a place of wisdom and strength, her effervescence remarkably intact.
While preparing Feeling Good for tour dates around the country, LaChanze has also released a companion EP. The set features three songs from the show, including the title theme, a tune by singer-songwriter Raul Midón ("If You Really Want"), and LaChanze's collaboration with producer Michael Olatuja ("Free"). "I just wanted to get something out so people could start listening to the music and become more familiar with what's coming down the road," she says, excited to showcase new material amidst her masterful renditions of Joni Mitchell's "River", Chaka Khan's "Love Has Fallen on Me", and "I'm Here", the showstopper from her Tony Award-winning performance as Celie in the original cast of The Color Purple (2005). The EP offers a glimpse of an artist whose finesse in the recording studio complements her command of critically acclaimed roles in Broadway productions like If/Then (2014) and Once on This Island (1990).
On the eve of Feeling Good's unveiling at the Highline Ballroom, PopMatters spoke with LaChanze about the process of bringing her life to the stage, and revisited highlights from a multi-faceted career constantly fueled by forward motion.
The name of your show is Feeling Good. Why are you feeling good these days?
I am feeling so good because I'm finally at a place in my life where I can look back and see the accomplishments that I've made up to this point. I'm halfway there now, so it's what I know so far. I can't say what I know period. I want to share the things I've done, the things I've survived, the things I've struggled through. I've been told that my story is rather inspiring, so I want to put it to music and sing about it.
How did the idea for Feeling Good first germinate?
Originally, it was about me wanting to sing songs that just felt good. So many times we go to these cabarets and these concerts and they're always the same kinds of songs, the same kinds of music, and the same kinds of themes. I went through different types of shows. I did a whole series dedicated to Diana Ross called Love Hangover where I did nothing but Diana Ross music. Then I did another show where it was nothing but Broadway composers, and that was great.
Then I thought, I want to do songs that I like. I put together a bunch of music and I did it down at Joe's Pub. It was a hit. People loved it. Then I took it to the Kennedy Center in D.C. It was a hit down there, too. I thought, Maybe this is an idea that I should develop more.
I'm also working on my memoir right now, so I was inspired by working on the chapters and the outline to pair some of the moments with song. I had no idea that I had so many moments! When you start unpacking that box, you see all of these things that have happened in your life that were significant. It becomes something that's rich and full. It's exciting.
Were there any changes to the show in that iteration between Joe's Pub and the Kennedy Center?
Yes, just a couple. I did "Use Me" by Bill Withers, which is great for Joe's Pub, but I didn't think it was so great for the Kennedy Center. [laughs] I cut that at the Kennedy Center and I did Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind" from Follies instead. "Use Me" and "Losing My Mind" are all about this passion and this deep-rooted desire for having to have a person in your life. That was that moment that I was trying to convey.
It doesn't hurt that I'm an actor, so I tend to lean more towards the emotional and the dramatic moment. I love building the story and building the environment, setting the tone, emotionally. That's important to me because if I'm feeling it, then you definitely will feel it as an audience member.
Are there moments from your life that have been difficult to translate to Feeling Good, in terms of setting them to music?
Yes, the moment when my husband passed away in 9/11. That's been particularly difficult to set to music. You think of music, you think of singing and celebration. I don't know anyone who wants to sing about 9/11, so it was difficult for me to find the right tone. I ended up finding a Negro spiritual ("I Told Jesus") that helps to set this tone for me. When you think of a Negro spiritual, it automatically puts you in a certain state of mind. That was as close to that moment for myself as I could get.
Feeling Good is directed by Tamara Tunie. Both of you are veterans of the Broadway community. At what point did your paths first cross?
Years ago, we were both part of a women's theater company. I was one of the new members and she had already been in it. There was a production of Electra that we were doing and she was Electra. I didn't know her at all, but I just was so blown away by her passion for acting and the way she just threw herself into this character so fearlessly and without bounds. We got to know each other that way.
We socialized through the years. She'd been with me through the birth of my children, the marriage to my husband, the loss of him, remarrying the idiot that I remarried, the divorce. She's been with me through everything.
What distinguishes Tamara from other directors you've worked with over the years?
First of all, she knows me very well. She can distinguish between the truth and fiction in a moment. If there's something that I'm trying not to go too deeply into, she'll say, "Remember this? Write more about that." It's great to have someone that has personal insight into the details of my life. I'm writing every word on the page. It's a full 27-page script, but she can look at it and edit it, or ask me to write about a different point of view, because she knows the truth of my story.
What are some of the key differences between what you presented at Joe's Pub and the Kennedy Center versus how Feeling Good has evolved to the version you're premiering at the Highline Ballroom?
What I performed at Joe's Pub, literally, was an evening of great music that I loved. What's different is now I'm speaking from my personal voice, so I start the show talking about what my home environment was like, then I go into establishing that environment. From there, I go into the next phase, my girlhood, and I do moments where it's an exchange between my mother and I, but from a girl's point of view. It's actually a retelling of a specific account of my life, but taking you on the journey through spoken word, through text, through monologues interspersed between songs.
I love that you and Raul Midón have collaborated on some of the music. When did you team up with him?
I met Raul maybe 17 years ago when he first came to New York. One of my girlfriends was singing backup for him. She said, "Come over to B.B. King's. I'm singing with this great artist Raul Midón." I brought a bunch of my friends and we all went. I instantly became his number one fan. Now we're friends, because when you're that much of a fan, you find your way into this person's life [laughs]. I completely did that! He and his wife and I talk on the phone. We just have a really great relationship.
There are two songs in this show: one of my favorites is called "If You Really Want", which is an original of his, and then he wrote this other song ("Triflin' Ass Niggas"). I just gave him a bunch of information that I wanted set to a gutbucket blues. He wrote the song and gave it back to me. I credit him as the songwriter. I really just gave him the text.
How did Michael Olatuja factor into the evolution of Feeling Good?
Michael Olatuja is a brilliant bassist and record producer. I'm a fan of his now ex-wife, Alicia Olatuja. I would play her music in my dressing room. She does this beautiful Brazilian song, but the beginning of the song is an excellent vocal warm-up for me. It's this whole sort of rhythmic melody. To loosen up my voice, I would sing to Alicia.
I was doing a concert for the Cancer Society and I had to get a whole new band at the last minute because I needed a new Musical Director. My new Musical Director said, "I'm going to bring in this guy that I know to play bass for you, Michael Olatuja." Michael and I were in the green room and I said, "You have the same last name as this woman who I absolutely love. I listen to her CD all the time in my dressing room. Her name is Alicia Olatuja. Do you know her?" He said, "That's my ex-wife. I produced her album." I said, "You produced her album? Let me take you to lunch and talk about producing mine!" I did, and here we are.
Michael pretty much arranged all three of the songs on the EP and he's going to finish my album. One of the songs he and I wrote together is called "Free". His arrangement of "Feeling Good" is the one that we're doing. He re-arranged an arrangement of "If You Really Want" that I love.
What have you discovered about yourself through the process of bringing Feeling Good to the stage that maybe you weren't conscious of before?
One of the things that I discovered that I didn't really think about was that I've had a lot of stuff happen to me in my life. It's as if I've lived five lives when I think about very specific periods. It's so much information that I can't write about all of it. In preparing the concert version, I literally had to pick highlights and cut out so much stuff. The concert is fifteen broad strokes. The memoir, of course, is more fleshed out.
Last December, you attended the Dreamgirls reunion in honor of the show's 35th anniversary. You performed in the national touring company and in the 1987 revival on Broadway. What were your expectations walking into the reunion?
I thought we were going to get together, take this quick picture, and then I'd get back in my car and go home! I got there and I was so overwhelmed by seeing so many familiar faces that it took me back to that time in my life when I was on tour as a young girl learning everything about the business. That tour was my very first time that I spent in a company of actors on the road for a long period of time.
I learned a bunch in that show. It was really a crash course in this industry. I was the youngest one in the company. I was very impressionable and eager and ambitious. Sometimes that didn't serve me well. People were not very nice, but then sometimes you need that when you're learning: these are the types of people you work with. This is the nature of the business. It's very competitive.
In fact, during one of the more tough periods, I told my mother, "I'm not sure if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life because I don't necessarily like how this is. I don't feel good here." She said, "Finish the tour and see how you feel after that." I did. When I got back to New York and I got back in my apartment, I was working and not living in that environment, so I felt much better. I decided to stay.
You were in Dreamgirls with the late Philip Gilmore. Many of us cheered when his son Mahershala Ali won the Oscar for "Best Supporting Actor" in Moonlight (2016). Did you ever see young Mahershala backstage?
Of course! His father had him around all the time. I remember Mahershala was a little boy around the theater. Now, he's grown into a beautiful, brilliant man making people cry at the Golden Globes! His father would be so proud of him.
Dreamgirls recently had its premiere in London. Why do you think that show has endured for so long?
I think it's because it's a basic story about the industry. When it's not broke, there's nothing to fix. It's sort of a template for what happens to relationships in a girl group, how the record business can be slimy, how you can get kicked to the curb for different reasons, but then the humanity of us pulls us back together. It's a timeless story. It could be Destiny's Child's story. Beyoncé could be Deena … and she was [in the film version]!
It just so happens that you originated a role in another show that recently had its London premiere, Kirsten Childs' The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (2000).
Yes, I am so excited about that! I've been in touch with Kirsten about it. It's about time that that show has gotten the due that it deserves. It's probably my favorite cast recording. The music is so good, first of all. There's not a sleeper on it! You get the whole story if you listen to the CD. Each song is brilliantly written.
I used to play it for my kids when they were little and they didn't get all of the references, really. They didn't get the irony of it, but they loved it! They used to sing that more than Once on This Island. Once on This Island was scary for them, with the lightning and the thunder and the girl screaming, but Bubbly Black Girl? They loved it.
In what ways did the journey of Viveca in Bubbly Black Girl reflect your own experience in the business?
It's funny you ask that. In some ways I think I was typecast because I am that girl -- everything's great, everything's fun, everything's awesome. I don't have a mean streak or anything like that. I'm very optimistic. I came into the business that way and things have happened that have made me go, Wait a minute … that doesn't seem right.
There have been similarities with that "just keep smiling and work hard and you'll get what you deserve" kind of approach to this business. I've learned, and I continue to learn, that a lot of what happens isn't about you, it's about what's going on around you. You fit into it or you don't. Once you realize and accept that, it frees you up to just live your life and do your best.
It's been reported that Once on This Island is headed back to Broadway in a revival. It seems like all of your roles are coming back! What moments still live with you from the experience of playing Ti Moune?
Ti Moune had a blind focus on living a life full of love in readiness for what the world has in store for her. I still have that. I'm still ready. I'm not waiting for it to begin, but I continue to wait for "the new" to come in. I'm still optimistic in that way.
"I'm Here" is Celie's declaration in The Color Purple. What does "I'm Here" mean to you now versus when you performed it in the original production of the show?
I don't know if it means anything different. It's still a profoundly moving testament to the value of living in this world and that you matter. The space that you take up in this world is just as important as the person sitting next to you. It still means that, even though other people have sung it and the show's become something else now, I still feel that way about it.
Let's rewind to June 11th 2006. You're sitting in the audience at Radio City Music Hall. You're nominated for "Best Actress in a Musical" alongside Sutton Foster, Patti LuPone, Kelli O'Hara, and Chita Rivera. All of you are there. How did you prepare for that day?
I didn't prepare anything! [laughs] I was just happy to be at the party. Patti LuPone? Chita Rivera? Come on! I'm a Patti LuPone fan. She's incredible! I love Patti LuPone. I know people talk about her being difficult to work with sometimes. Whatever. She is the freakin' grande dame, in my opinion, and I would die to work with her.
When we were going through the rehearsal period for the cameras, I was walking across the stage and I thought, What if I win this? What would I say? All I could think of, because I hadn't planned anything, was to thank the cast, from the youngest to the oldest. That's all I thought to remember. In fact, I feel I should have thanked my director and my producer, but I didn't. I thanked Oprah for bringing it to the stage. I thanked Alice Walker for writing the story. If I went back, I would thank Gary Griffin and Scott Sanders, the writers, the composers … I would thank all of them.
I know a couple of Broadway performers who want to branch out into solo performing, independent of theater. What tools do you need to make that transition in establishing yourself as a solo artist?
Discipline. Theater is structured. You're plugged into a system. It's relentless. You're expected to do certain things every day. You have your tasks. When you're not doing that, and you have your own life and your own schedule, you might be a little more lenient and you might not be as productive, so you need discipline to use that format and that structure to apply to how you spend your day.
You and Cicely Tyson had wonderful chemistry as mother and daughter in The Help (2011). There's that scene where Rachel (LaChanze) comes to see Constantine (Tyson) at Charlotte's house while she's hosting a lunch. Charlotte says, "Both of you, leave." What did you learn from Cicely Tyson in the way she approached that particular scene?
Save it for the camera -- that's what I learned from Cicely Tyson. Don't waste your energy. Don't waste your emotion. Save it for that special moment and deliver in that moment, no holds barred.
The first time you appeared on Broadway was in Uptown … It's Hot! (1986). If you had to go back and tell young LaChanze something during that time, what would you say?
I would tell her, "Do not leave school for this job. Take a break. Go on a hiatus, but don't leave school." I left school for that show. I didn't think I would have to go back. The show closed and then there I was forced to get a job. Fortunately for me, within a month, I did … but it doesn't always work that way. I was very, very fortunate. I would not do that again. I would finish school.
I wanted to share a quote from your friend and fellow Dreamgirls alum Jamie Patterson. He says, "LaChanze brings the flowers into any situation when she walks in the room. She alleviates people's anxiety. Her name should be LaChanze Joy. She exhibits the joy that Lena Horne had, even through adversity."
That's so sweet of him! Honestly, I'll tell you, that's the only way I can function. I can't stand adversity and stress and drama and tension. I can't function in that environment. If I have anything to say about it, we're going to get rid of it, so that everyone can just relax and have a good time. Plus, I'm a creative spirit. In order for it to flow, you can't be blocked by something negative, or if you're in your head about the way someone's going to feel about something. I like to alleviate it so that I can feel good … which brings me back to my concert! That's how we're going to feel. We're going to feel good!