It’s not unheard of for big Broadway stars to join a show’s national tour when it goes on the road.
Alice Ripley traveled with “Next to Normal.” Angela Lansbury went out on tour with “Sweeney Todd” and, many years later, “Blithe Spirit.” Carol Channing didn’t want to let go of a good thing with “Hello, Dolly!,” a spectacular cash cow she milked for decades. (I saw her at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco as a kid and begged my parents for the LP album on sale in the lobby.)
The more common thing, however, is for a big star to stay home in New York and let a lesser name (though not necessarily weaker performer) take the show on the road.
But when it comes to the national tour of the musical “If/Then” (which opens Tuesday, Nov. 10, at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, and runs through Dec. 6), you get genuine star power – and you get it times four.
Idina Menzel is reprising her lead role as Elizabeth – a divorced woman returning to New York for a fresh start – in the show, which closed in New York in May after a year-long run. Joining her are three of the show’s original stars reprising their roles: LaChanze (who won a Tony for “The Color Purple”), Anthony Rapp (who starred with Menzel in “Rent”), and James Snyder, who got his big break in the show.
“We didn’t want the party to end,” LaChanze says on the phone from Denver, the first stop on the tour. “We kept telling each other backstage: ‘I’ll do it if you do it,’ you know what I mean. We thought how much fun it would be for all of us to launch the tour together.”
For fans not able to make it to New York, it will be a rare treat. Only a few cities will be treated to all four of the original cast, however. (After San Francisco, “If/Then” heads to the Hollywood Pantages theater Dec. 8-Jan. 3. Menzel is in the show through Costa Mesa, Jan. 19-24.
It’s a delight for me to speak with LaChanze, whom I got to see in New York in a wonderful little musical called “Dessa Rose”, then her acclaimed turn in “The Color Purple.” I’ve always admired her vocal prowess.
For the actress, who is also leaving the tour early so she can get back to New York for her two teenage daughters, the experience is a chance to extend the run of a show she feels passionately about. “This piece is something that makes you sit up, pay attention and think,” she says.
Central to the premise of “If/Then,” which is from the team of “Next to Normal” creators Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, is the idea that you choose one path or another at key points in your life. What if you could see what would happen if you’d chosen differently? As Menzel’s character, Elizabeth, makes a crucial decision, two storylines unfold, one following “Liz,” the other “Beth.”
LaChanze plays Kate, a lesbian kindergarten teacher, figuring prominently in both storylines.
If anyone would know about how a person’s life journey can veer unexpectedly, it’s LaChanze, whose husband was working in the World Trade Center the day of the 9/11 attacks. His death obviously changed her life forever.
Earlier this year, she sang “Amazing Grace” at the dedication of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City – an overwhelming experience for her. (The video of the performance is touching.)
“I had not been in that actual location since the passing of my husband,” she says.
On the phone, she’s thoughtful and amiable in our conversation, taking a genuine interest in my memories of “Dessa Rose” – it’s always good for an interviewer to have a liking for an actor’s lesser-known work – and vigorously promoting the experience of “If/Then.”
The show has been criticized for being hard to follow – a complaint revived in the Denver Post review of the tour – but LaChanze says that a funny thing happened as audiences flocked to the show in New York: People paid attention, and they got it.
“It takes a certain audience to do that – the forward-thinkers, the millennials,” she says. “They’re really on board with it. The more people that see it and get it, the larger our cult following is.”
- Tuesday, Nov. 10-Sunday, Dec. 6
- Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco
- www.shnsf.com, 888-746-1799