DIVA TALK: Chatting With LaChanze Plus News of Merman, Murney & Maureen

DIVA TALK: Chatting With LaChanze Plus News of Merman, Murney & Maureen LaCHANZE

LaCHANZE

I remember being completely astounded when I first heard LaChanze sing the Ragtime ballad "Your Daddy's Son." Not to imply that other versions aren't extremely powerful, but there was something about hearing the song belted through its entire extensive range that made it more heartbreaking than ever before. LaChanze's forceful tones — almost a screaming cry — were, in a word, thrilling. The actress-singer seems to have a habit of thrilling audiences: She was a standout in the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Company, where she delivered a memorable rendition of Stephen Sondheim's "Another Hundred People," and her performance in Once On This Island prompted New York Times' critic Frank Rich to write, "The most golden throats and ethereal presences belong to LaChanze and Nikki Rene." This Saturday, LaChanze will bring that golden throat and her radiant, megawatt smile to Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, where she will offer concerts at 8 and 10 PM. Remarkably, this marks the singer-actress' solo concert debut. I had the chance to speak with LaChanze earlier this week (excerpts follow), and we discussed a variety of topics, including her two young daughters — Zaya LaChanze (age 1) and Celia Rose (age 2) — as well as the tragic death of her husband, Calvin Gooding, who lost his life during the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In fact, the evening at Lincoln Center's Rose Building (Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse) will include a song composed by the Ragtime team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty to honor Gooding's death; the tune is simply titled "Song for LaChanze."

Question: How are rehearsals going for your concert?
LaChanze: It is probably the most exciting thing I've done in a really long time. I've never done a cabaret format or anything like this of my own before. I've sung with other people in their cabarets or concerts. I've done several songs for musical theatre in concert, but I've never been given the freedom to go and select songs that are meaningful to me and get a band together and create a format or have a platform for it. it's just been great!

Q: Is this something you've wanted to do for a while?
LaChanze: It's something that, in all honesty, I've been intimidated by. I think that's why I haven't done it before. [Laughs.] I'm a theatre doll, and I've always — since I'm out of school — have always been on stage. And it's always been with someone else's words and someone else's music, and I've always had a character to get behind, but there is no character this time! It's me. It's a little intimidating, but I've got to tell you, I'm thrilled to be doing it.

Q: Who will be accompanying you? Will you have a band?
LaChanze: I'll have five pieces. I'll have a bass player; drummer; pianist; reed player, who will play saxophone and flute; and a percussionist . . . Fred Karl is my musical director. He was the musical director on Bubbly [Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin]. He's also a professor at NYU Music School. Q: How did you go about choosing the songs for the concert?
LaChanze: Well, I have a director. His name is Jerry Dixon. [In addition to his acting], he's also a brilliant director. He really is. I've known this since we worked together on Once On This Island. I always said that if I ever do anything where I can select a director, I'll hire Jerry Dixon. Even though this is just a little cabaret, he has helped me select songs and put them together in a way that is so uniquely me — that's the only way I can express it! He knows me so well; he's even able to say, 'LaChanze, this isn't what you're trying to convey at this time; this is what you want to say!' [Laughs.] He's just great. He's been able to edit me, which is something that very few people can do. And, he does it so well. He's so gentle.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your background. Where were you born and raised?
LaChanze: I was born in St. Augustine, Florida. I lived there till I was about 13, and then my family moved to Connecticut. I finished school there, and then I went to college in Philadelphia and came to New York in '87. I wasn't finished with school — I left school to go on the road.

Q: When did you know that you wanted to pursue performing as a career?
LaChanze: Probably when I was about four! [Laughs.] Well, I just didn't think about anything else, ever. Some people think, 'Well, if I have a Plan B, I'll be . . . '

Q: What was it like returning to Once On This Island this year with the reunion concert?
LaChanze: That was so great. I have to say what was the most memorable about it was in the actual production, during the show, I finished singing 'Waiting for Life,' and the audience gave me such a warm reception that it went beyond applause for the show. I just felt that based on what happened to me in the past year, that there was so much love and support coming to me from the theatre community. And it was overwhelming. I was just so touched by it; I'll never forget that. It was beyond, 'Oh, you just sang a great song.' It was the audience saying, 'You know, LaChanze, we really feel for you. We feel what you're going through right now. We just want you to know that.' It was just so warm.

Q: Do you feel the theatre community has been supportive this past year?
LaChanze: Oh, My God, more than I would have ever imagined. I had no idea that so many people had so much care and thought and positive energy for me. If someone had said to me, 'If this happens to you, do you think the musical theatre would support you this much?' I'd say, 'Well, I'm sure there would be some that would support me,' but I have gotten calls, letters, e-mails from people that I've worked with maybe once. And, again, this was huge this tragedy. The world knew about it — 1,011 people came to my husband's memorial.

Q: How are you doing at this point?
LaChanze: I'm doing much better. I will miss my husband until the day I die, but you know what, I'm doing okay.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the song Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote for you about your husband.
LaChanze: Lynn and Stephen also knew my husband very well. They were invited to several family gatherings, baby shower, birthday party, that sort of thing. When this happened, Lynn said she didn't know what to say, so she wrote a poem in honor of Calvin. And she said, 'One day, I'm going to put this to music.' And, there was a production called Brave New World, which was put together to raise money for a relief organization for children of the victims of 9/11. And, for that, Stephen put it to music. And it is probably the most beautiful song I'm singing that evening. It's pretty amazing. It's sung to me — it's written to me, but I'm singing it.

Q: You've also been involved in a few projects that are heading to the stage. One of them is Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish. Can you tell me a little about it?
LaChanze: I like to think of it as the Rent of the new millennium, because it is so new. It's not like anything that's been done before. It's all about a young woman, a little bit neurotic, who's living in New York and how she finds her way back to herself — her journey to herself. I play her absolutely perfect best friend [laughs], who's neurotic also.

Q: Has anyone else been cast?
LaChanze: Lea DeLaria, Jennifer Laura Thompson. Jennifer is the star — she stars in Urinetown. Also, Jesse Ferguson . . . We go into rehearsals Dec. 17. It's going to be at Second Stage. I'm really looking forward to it — I've always wanted to do a Michael John piece. He is so great to work with. I walked into rehearsal the first day, and he played my song for me, and I sang it. The next day, I came into rehearsal, he had completely rewritten the song because of the way that I sing. He had expanded it; he just did all these great things to suit my voice. He's a wonderful artist to work with.

Q: You also did a workshop of the musical Baby. Is anything happening with that?
LaChanze: We are potentially opening at the Roundabout. It's not set yet. There have been inquiries as to my availability in March, but nothing's been put on paper yet. . . I'd be playing Pam, the gym teacher, opposite Norm Lewis.

Q: Any chance that you might record the evening that you're doing at Lincoln Center?
LaChanze: I've been [in discussions] about that. The problem is Lincoln Center isn't set up for that sort of thing. I have intentions and hopes of doing this again — maybe at Joe's Pub or somewhere else — and those spaces are more conducive for a recording, so I would record it there . . .

Q: Are there any other projects you're involved with?
LaChanze: I am going to do the workshop of Dessa Rose next summer, which I'm really looking forward to. It's a new show that Lynn and Stephen wrote. We're workshopping it for Lincoln Center sometime next summer. It's about a rebellious slave, and it's based on a true story. It's pretty powerful. Donna Murphy and I are the leads. We did one reading, the next stage is the workshop.

[Tickets for "An Evening with LaChanze" are priced at $45 (8 PM) and $30 (10 PM) and are available by calling (212) 721-6500. The Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse is located on the tenth floor of the Rose Building, 165 West 65th Street. I'll be at the 10 PM show — hope to see you there!]

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: For those diva lovers with a hankering to hear the infamous, long out-of-print Ethel Merman disco album, your wait will soon be over. On Nov. 19, Merman fans around the world will be able to order "The Ethel Merman Disco Album" through the Fynsworth Alley website (www.fynsworthalley.com). The new CD — which includes the original liner notes by Peter Matz and Paul Jabarra — contains disco versions of such Merman staples as "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Something for the Boys," "Some People," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "I Got Rhythm." The re-release will also offer a bonus track of Merman singing Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful" as well as a picture of the Merm in the studio recording her only disco venture. "The Ethel Merman Disco Album" will not be available in stores until January 2003 . . . On Nov. 18 — the evening before she begins her Plush Room engagement — Maureen McGovern will take part in the "In Conversation and Song" series at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum at 6 PM. McGovern will offer a few songs — with music director Jeff Harris at the piano — and she will also discuss her three decades in show business. Arts writer Sheryl Flatow will moderate. Call (415) 255-4800 for reservations; go to www.sfpalm.org for more information. . . The fourth annual Help Is on the Way for the Holidays benefit, presented by The Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation, is scheduled for Dec. 9 at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre. The evening, which begins with a 6 PM silent auction followed by the 7:30 PM concert, will include performances from a host of celebrities from the worlds of theatre, cabaret, TV and film. Among those scheduled to take part in the fundraiser are Jill Eikenberry, Michael Tucker, Gregory Harrison, Rod McKuen, Sally Struthers, Bonnie Franklin, Davis Gaines, Franc D'Ambrosio, Sharon McNight, Wesla Whitfield, Lisa Viggiano, Opie Bellas, Michael Bannett and the cast of Stomp. Tickets for the show only are priced at $35, $50 and $75; tickets for the show plus the champagne and dessert party range from $100 to $5,000. Call (415) 273-1620 for reservations . . . Beginning Dec. 10, the CD of Redhead — the 1959 Gwen Verdon vehicle — will also be available via the Fynsworth Alley website. The re-release of the recording features three songs written for the show that did not end up in the final version. The bonus tracks include Faith Prince singing "What Has She Got?," Jennifer Piech and Mark Price crooning "You Love I" and Liz Callaway offering "It Doesn't Take a Minute." All three songs were written by Albert Hague and Dorothy Fields . . . Julia Murney, who offered a thrilling rendition of "People" at the recent Funny Girl benefit concert, and Ric Ryder will perform the songs of Steve Marzullo at a special performance at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre on Sunday, Nov 24. The concert, which will feature Marzullo on piano, is scheduled for 9 PM at the downtown cabaret. Marzullo is, perhaps, best known for the song "I Hid My Love," which was recorded by three-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald; he has also written the music for Joyce Jackson's Guide to Dating, Fools Rush In and The Wild Flowers Bloom. The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is located in New York's West Village at 61 Christopher Street. There is a $12 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 989-3015 for reservations . . . And, finally, Barbra's coming to New York for the holidays! That is, world-renowned impersonator Steven Brinberg will bring his acclaimed Simply Barbra concert to Don't Tell Mama for a month of special holiday shows. Titled Simply Barbra — A Christmas Show, Brinberg will offer 8 PM shows on Dec. 6, 13, 20 and 27 and 6 PM performances on Dec. 8, 15, 22 and 29. The show will feature songs from Streisand's holiday album, including "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Jingle Bells," as well as a parody of "I Don't Remember Christmas" — an ode to former Streisand love Don Johnson — and the Sondheim standard "I'm Still Here." Call (212) 757-0788 for reservations.

REMINDERS

Betty Buckley in Concert:

Nov. 15 at the Patchogue Theatre in Patchogue, NY
Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY Purchase in Purchase, NY
Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
Dec. 20 at the Sunoco Performance Theater in Harrisburg, PA
May 31, 2003 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA

Liz Callaway in Concert: Nov. 14 at the Supper Club for The Amazing Voices benefit in New York, NY
May 16, 2003 Broadway Showstoppers in Philadelphia, PA

Barbara Cook in Concert:

Nov. 23-30 at the Curran in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 3-16 at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, FL
Dec. 20 at the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 31, 2003 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island, NY
Feb. 14-16 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Linda Eder in Concert:

Nov. 20 at the Community Theatre in Morristown, NJ
Nov. 23 at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT
Dec. 1 at the Bass Hall in Austin, TX
Dec. 3 at the Verizon Wireless Theatre in Houston, TX
Dec. 4 at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, TX
Dec. 12 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota, FL
Dec. 16 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, FL
Dec. 17 at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL
Dec. 18 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, FL
Dec. 20 and 21 with the Atlanta Symphony at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 3 and 4, 2003 with the Baltimore Symphony in Baltimore, MD
Jan. 25 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
Jan. 30 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, CA
Feb. 1 at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, CO
Feb. 14 at the Proctor's Theatre in Albany, NY

Patti LuPone in Concert

March 27, 2003 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")

Maureen McGovern in Concert:

Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 at the Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!

—By Andrew Gans