LaChanze relates to the diva she plays in Broadway’s Donna Summer musical
In the Broadway musical “Summer,” Tony Award-winner LaChanze plays “disco queen” Donna Summer as an older artist looking back on her life and career.
Three actresses play the five-time Grammy Award-winner Summer at various stages of her life in the show which brims with a long string of hits Summer had in the ’70s and ’80s. (Summer, born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, died in 2012 of cancer at the age of 63.)
The look-back perspective as the older “Diva Donna” is something in which LaChanze can relate.
“There’s a line at the end of the show when I say, ‘I’ve played a lot of roles in my time,’ and boy, there’s a lot of LaChanze there, too,” said the actress recently from her dressing room.
It’s a peaceful, cream-colored room, decorated with a set of nine Moroccan prayer bells. LaChanze, looking a decade younger than her 56 years, seems right at home as she cozies up on the couch for a talk about her life in Connecticut — and beyond.
There’s a lot of synchronicity with “Summer,” she says. The Lunt Fontanne Theatre, where “Summer” is playing, is the same venue where LaChanze made her Broadway debut 32 years ago in the unsuccessful musical, “Uptown…It’s Hot.” She points to a framed photograph of that cast on the wall. “I was third girl from the left,” she says.
Since that 1986 show, her track record has improved immeasurably. Her Broadway credits include the original production of “Once On This Island,” where she earned her first Tony nomination. She also became the first person of color in a Broadway revival of “Company.” Other main stem credits include “Dreamgirls,” “Ragtime” and “If/Then.” Off-Broadway she received an Obie Award for the musical “Dessa Rose.” But her triumphant role was that of Celie in the 2006 production of “The Color Purple,” which earned her the Tony. (She also received a Tony nomination in June as outstanding actress in a musical as “Diva Donna” in “Summer.”)
Born Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, the actress-singer decided at the start of her career that her middle monicker — she was named after her grandmother, and its Creole meaning is “charmed one” — had more marquee appeal.
“‘Rhonda Sapp,’ now what does that sound like In the newspaper? ‘Sapp sucks.’” She laughs. “ I didn’t want that.”
LaChanze’s family moved to Bridgeport when she was 12. “I was the oldest of four siblings and my mother adopted three more of my cousins because my aunt died when she was very young. So I grew up with a lot of kids around me. I took solace in music and dancing. I would dress my siblings up in costumes and we would perform around the house.”
She also performed at Bridgeport’s Warren G. Harding High School where she was a cheerleader, performed in the color guard and played Lola in “Damn Yankees” and Nina in “Dracula.” Being close to New York also allowed her to see Broadway shows. Her first: the original “Chicago” with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera.
But it was when she received more formal training when she was a young teenager that LaChanze discovered her professional potential. That was at New Haven’s Bowen/Peters School of Dance, a celebrated center for young people, especially African-Americans, which Angela Bowen ran with her then-husband Ken Peters.
“I cut my teeth performing there and I studied ballet, jazz, tap and African movement and all sorts of other things. I credit her to help form me as an artist, creating my sense of competition, building my confidence, developing my work ethic, and my always needing to be the best. [Angela Bowen] was remarkable and had a profound affect on my choices.”
But it wasn’t easy being in the school, she says.
“There were times when she would put me back in my group of dancers if my technique wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be. That challenged my ego and my sense of self. I so badly wanted to be the best so she really made me strive to be the best.”
(The arts center closed in 1982 after 19 years and Angela Bowen went on for a career as a scholar and advocate on lesbian, black and feminist issues. She died in July at the age of 82.)
“She taught me quite a few valuable life lessons, too,” says LaChanze. “I remember coming to class one day and she was making me hold a dance position which was excruciating and she said to me, ’It’s only pain. It will pass.’ That little phrase stayed with me and I applied it to so many different areas of my life.”
But there was earned praise, too. “There was a moment when I was on stage and she cane up to me and she said, ‘You are really becoming a beautiful performer.’ She told me when I wasn’t good and she told me when I was.”
LaChanze is now guiding her two daughters, Zaya, now in high school and Celia Gooding, who is an actress, and was featured in the new musical “Jagged Little Pill,” which is inspired by Alanis Morissette’s album, and which premiered earlier this year at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. They are both daughters of Calvin Gooding, a securities trader who was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks in Tower One of the World Trade Center.
“I see through them a refection of myself,” says LaChanze, “and they make me think often about what I’ve done with my life.”
And the most important piece of advice for daughters?
“Know your value,” she says. “Don’t let someone else tell you what that is.”
Another life marker for LaChanze was turning 50. “OK, I had done great some great things, now what do I want? I love working on Broadway and being able to star in a show. But do I want to do Broadway for the rest of my life? Maybe — it’s always been my first love, but maybe I want to do something else, like more TV and film. I have ‘Melinda,’ a mystery-thriller indie film that’s going through the festival circuit now. I am also interested in developing my one-woman show about my life, ‘Feeling Good.’ And I’m writing a memoir.“
But there’s also the possibility of another Broadway show for next year, she says with a smile.
“The 50s are about the time when you want to live a little bit more and in the living comes doing more of the things that I choose. Right now I’m choosing to help my daughters transition to womanhood.”
And playing Donna Summer, too, she says, “who in her 50s was still glamorous and beautiful and sexy —but also was someone who had lived a full life.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance writer.