LaChanze, the Tony-winning star of The Color Purple and several Ahrens/Flaherty musicals, will next take the stage in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which tells the story of the disco star’s life and music, at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, Nov. 7-Dec. 17.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: There are three Donnas in the show. Why three, and what are the differences among them?
LACHANZE: I’m Diva Donna, and you’re basically coming into an evening of my life. Two other Donnas represent the younger parts of my life—Disco Donna and Duckling Donna. I come in and out with narration, and there are moments when all three of us are there together. I also take on the role of young Donna’s mother. So it’s a group of us taking on this character and reflecting the different dimensions of her life.
I’m old enough to have owned a 45 record of “Hot Stuff.” How about you? What’s your connection to Donna Summer?
This is my era—I was a kid in the ’70s. Our parents wouldn’t let us listen to “Love to Love You Baby,” but “She Works Hard for the Money” was one of my favorites, “Dim All the Lights”—there were some beautiful songs. It was a part of the soundtrack of my life as a kid.
Did you ever consider a pop music career, or was it always theatre for you?
Not pop music, but I have entertained a recording-contract life at times. It was difficult for me to find the right genre. It’s never been pop; it’s always been a combination of jazz, theatrical music, which is what I’m known for, and a little bit of soul. Most of my music is infused with soul.
Besides Donna, who were some other musical idols?
Diana Ross was my icon. She could just easily flow through all genres: recording artist, stage performer, nightclub performer, she did films, she did television. She was everything. And she performed until she was well into her 70s.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
When I was in college, my dad gave me a choice, he said, “If your musical tree does not bear fruit, a few years after you leave college, you have to pick another profession.” The only other thing I wanted to do was to go into law—because I would still get to perform, and convince people of my story.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a very fascinating book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck [by Mark Manson]. It’s a great book, if you haven’t read it. I’m loving it.
What are you doing when you’re not acting or singing?
Well, I also have two teenage daughters, and one is off at college. She’s actually about to do her first Broadway production [Jagged Little Pill]. So I’m very busy being a “momager,” getting her set up for her first show fresh out of school.
You sing a lot of different kinds of music. Is there one top vocal care tip you have for singers?
I’m not a huge fan of the pop quality, where it’s very breathy and the voice isn’t supported. I think all things should be supported—that doesn’t mean belted, it just means placed properly and supported. It gives you longevity. I hear all these young singers who just scream; they don’t know how to place their voices. My vocal teachers always stressed muscle memory as the trick, because you’ll know what if feels like to hit the note, as opposed to listening to what it sounds like.
Any great roles you still want to do?
I wanna do Evita. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to, but that’s a role that I’m dying to play one year, if someone will take the chance on me. That’s the role.
Your husband, Calvin J. Gooding, died in World Trade Center 1 on Sept. 11, 2001. Is that a date you still honor?
Absolutely. It’s been a while, but that was my children’s father. And you can imagine: There’s a prom, there’s a 16th birthday—these major milestones in life that children go through that need their dad, and it breaks my heart every time that he’s not here for these milestones. As I approach the empty-nesting moment, there are times when I just want my husband around and he’s not here. It definitely can be stressful.
Going back to Summer, is there anything about Donna that you didn’t know that you were really surprised to learn?
I didn’t know that Donna Summer was as spiritual as she was. She was hugely spiritual. She grew up in church, and that’s actually where she started singing. I also didn’t know that she would sneak a cigarette now and then. But we don’t talk about that out loud.