December 12, 2005 12:00 PM

As the star of a new musical version of The Color Purple, Broadway performer LaChanze plays a woman who finds happiness after surviving terrible hardship. It’s a journey she knows well. When LaChanze was eight months pregnant, she lost her husband, Calvin Gooding, a 38-year-old partner at the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald, in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. “It was so unreal at the time,” she recalls. “There was this inner belief that he was somewhere and he hadn’t come home yet.”

But like thousands of others, he never returned. And suddenly LaChanze was left to support daughter Celia, now 5, and Zaya, now 4, born six weeks after her father’s death. Having Zaya was “a burden and a blessing,” she says. “I had to focus on making her life as normal as possible, and in doing that, I was able to distract myself.”

Now, in the lead role of Celie—a character who grows from a 14-year-old incest victim to a triumphant middle-aged woman—LaChanze, 43 (who uses only her first name professionally), tackles the pain head on. “There are parallels between Celie and myself,” she says. “She survives this traumatic young-adult life and lives with a heavy burden on her. The one thing that has sustained us is the faith that it’s going to get better, that it can’t get any worse.”

Until that tragic day, steady stage work and a loving husband meant things couldn’t have been going better for LaChanze. In 1987 the St. Augustine, Fla., native landed a spot in the road show of Broadway’s Dreamgirls and four years later snared a Tony nomination as the lead in Once on This Island. Several years later she spotted another prize when Gooding walked by a Manhattan restaurant. “He was so handsome,” she told New York magazine in 2001. “My girlfriend and I toasted, and we both said, ‘I’ll drink to that.’ ” She and Gooding wed in 1998.

It took LaChanze a long time after 9/11 to accept that Gooding was gone. “They never got any remains, nothing,” she says. She slowly worked up the courage to begin performing again, with a few small bits leading up to a cathartic vocal performance—her solo debut—at Lincoln Center in November 2002. “She began to sing and was so triumphant,” says longtime friend Joseph Langworth. “I saw a survivor who chose to continue living.”

Her life would take another twist in November 2003 when a connection led her to artist Derek Fordjour, whom she commissioned to paint a 9/11 tribute as a gift to the law firm that had worked pro bono for her family. “He wanted to come up with a vision for the painting,” LaChanze explains. “So he had to know about me and as much about Calvin as I could tell him. We spent hours on the phone.” By the time the pair met face-to-face almost two months later, she recalls, “it was like I had known him all my life.”

It was around that same time that LaChanze auditioned for The Color Purple, which later caught Oprah Winfrey’s eye (see box). After the cast performed three songs on Oprah Nov. 11, Winfrey called the show “a holy moment.” Another such occasion came this July when LaChanze married Fordjour. When she walked down the aisle, “it was like Calvin stood right next to me,” says LaChanze. “It was like he was there to say, ‘It’s okay, go live your life. Everything’s all right.’ ”

Chris Strauss. Diane Herbst in New York City

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