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LaChanze offers a memorial tribute to Roundabout Theatre Company’s Todd Haimes

The actor and producer shares the personal and professional impact of the late artistic director on the occasion of his “dimming of the lights.”

(L-R) LaChanze and Todd Haimes (Credit: Jennifer Broski)

When I was asked to write a tribute to Todd Haimes, I thought, “Me?” How could I capture the essence of Todd, what he achieved in his career and how he transformed the Roundabout Theatre Company from a small and ambitious theater company into an internationally known, thriving nonprofit organization? How could I emphasize the importance of its reputation (that Todd built) for producing works by classic and emerging playwrights for generations? I was daunted by the task because I thought I’d never be able to capture all that Todd has done in his life.

My first encounter with Todd Haimes was when I was cast in the 1994 Broadway revival of “Company” by Stephen Sondheim. In my naïveté, I went into the audition thinking that there was no way they would cast a Black woman in a role that had been traditionally white — and a Sondheim one at that. But as an eager young actress, I threw myself into the process. I liked to imagine that Todd was in the room (and he might well have been) but, honestly, the only person I saw was Stephen Sondheim.

I was cast and upon walking into the rehearsal room on the first day, there was Todd Haimes. This unassuming, always smiling, warm, honest man congratulated me on a fantastic audition. (I guess he was there, after all.) He talked about how proud he was to have the show at the Criterion (then Roundabout’s sole Broadway house). I was thrilled because we were down at the famous rehearsal studios, 890 Broadway, where nobody rehearses anymore. As we stood in a circle to introduce ourselves and get started with our first day, Todd made it a point to welcome us in his true fashion, excited about every one of us in the room. Before we knew it, he had slipped out, on to what I could only assume was pressing artistic directorial duties.

Fast forward to 2021. Todd Haimes and I met again, forging ahead together with optimism as Broadway theaters had finally been given the green light to reopen. “Trouble in Mind” was the first play to be produced at the Roundabout after the pandemic shutdown. Needless to say, we were all feeling very sober and nervous about the condition of the industry we love. We were forcing our way through it, still feeling the stress of what it was like to be back in crowded spaces. It was hard for all of us.

But there was Todd Haimes: first day of rehearsal, stepping into his role as impassioned leader, going through introductions and welcomes with an air of determination and with deep gratitude that we were all back together. And through the entire rehearsal process, there was Todd Haimes — double-masked and rigorously sanitized — willing us to be a smashing success against all odds.

While subscription audiences were down and people were afraid to come back into the spaces, Todd would never miss an opportunity to not only speak to us as a group — encouraging us to continue to do the work — but he would also find the time to come to my dressing room and personally share his excitement and gratitude for the work that I was doing as the lead of “Trouble in Mind.” When Todd would visit me, I felt special — genuinely admired as an artist and as a friend. In my nearly 40 years in the theater, I’ve never had an artistic director as hands-on in the space, as encouraging, as visibly engaged with every element of the production (without getting in the way) as Todd Haimes.

Todd was our encouragement to keep going. When Omicron was out there, eating away at our audiences, Todd was working tirelessly on ways to get butts back in the seats. He made sure that we knew how much he appreciated the work we were doing and also how much he appreciated our commitment to the production.

Now understand something: The actor’s ego, as many of you know, is very healthy. So a compliment is like a serotonin shot for us. But Todd wasn’t there to stroke our egos. He watched the show quite often, sharing how his enthusiasm grew with every performance. He was there, and his presence calmed us all. He was determined, and he was grateful. That is the Todd that I know. The Todd that inspires. The Todd that encourages. The Todd that focuses us all. The Todd that kept us looking towards the future of the organization and prioritizing his vision. And though he was struggling with his health, you would never have known it.

Todd was a leader. Todd was a friend. Todd was a true visionary, planting the seeds to cultivate theater for generations of audiences to come. If you look in the dictionary under “theater geek” you would find Todd’s face, beaming with pride. He was someone that I got to know, to respect, to love and to admire. He was genuinely one of the kindest men I’ve ever known.

If I had the chance to speak to Todd one more time, I would say: “Thank you for seeing me and trusting me. Thank you for creating this space for me to call home. My theater home. Thank you for making it possible to create one of the most impressive and challenging roles of my career. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for building an inclusive institution that will live on for generations.”

Todd’s power and passion for education and diversity was unmatched. Not only have I reaped the benefits of being a Roundabout family member, but now, as a Roundabout board member, I hope to help continue to grow the vision and legacy of Todd Haimes.