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The 'Purple' heart

Turning Alice Walker's prize-winning novel into a Broadway musical didn't mean abandoning the grim realities -- just rediscovering the optimism, joy and triumph.

November 27, 2005|Patrick Pacheco | Special to The Times

New York — EARLY on in the adaptation of "The Color Purple" to the Broadway musical stage, lead producer Scott Sanders gave the creative team a directive: "You guys have 10 to 12 minutes to tell all the sad stuff you want, but then get Sofia on that stage."

Sofia, of course, is one of the self-empowered heroines of Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The big-bosomed, no-nonsense force of nature blows into the life of Celie, who is burdened with the "sad stuff." It is Celie who must endure a Job-like sentence of suffering in the novel set over four decades in an African American community in rural Georgia: poverty, rape, spousal abuse, apparent incest and forced separation from her offspring and beloved sister.

Sofia, meanwhile, provides a bracing dose of girl power -- even if that self-confidence eventually leads her into trouble. She spells relief, both comic and uplifting, to a producer like Sanders who worries a Broadway audience may be getting weary from all of Celie's bad news.

From a commercial point of view, that may be all to the good. Broadway has been decidedly inhospitable to serious-minded musicals of late even as musical comedies have reasserted a strong hold on the box office, with such juggernauts as "The Producers" and "Spamalot." Indeed, one would have to go back a decade, past numerous flops like "Titanic," "The Life," "Ragtime," "Sideshow" and "The Wild Party," to find the last darkly limned musicals to succeed at the box office -- "Rent" and "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk."

As it is now, Sofia makes her entrance 25 minutes into the $10-million "Color Purple," which opens at the Broadway Theatre on Thursday. But it's some introduction: a long stage cross by Felicia P. Fields as Sofia, accompanied by a brassy blast of trumpets that awakens the dormant spirit in Celie, played by the actress LaChanze. That same fanfare has of late attended the production itself because of the involvement not only of Quincy Jones but also of Oprah Winfrey, who first garnered national fame and an Oscar nomination as Sofia in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film of "The Color Purple."

Last month, Winfrey signed on as an investor, ponying up $1 million from her sizable fortune. But more important, the popular talk show host has above-the-title billing, as in "Oprah Winfrey Presents," putting her prestige in the show's promotional arsenal. On Nov. 11, after the cast of "The Color Purple" appeared on "Oprah," the box office racked up an impressive $2 million in ticket sales.

Sanders says that Winfrey, apart from being the No. 1 cheerleader, has not involved herself creatively in the show with one exception. After a run-through, she suggested to Fields that the actress sustain for a couple of more counts the last note on her clarion call against spousal abuse titled, "Hell No!"

Sanders found the suggestion in sync with the tone and flavor of the piece as a whole. "You really need to look at the balance of uplifting to sad, troublesome to funny, abusive to sexy," said Sanders, a onetime television, film and Radio City Music Hall executive who has nurtured the musical's development over the last eight years. "It's not been easy, and it's been an incredibly challenging piece to adapt, this epic, important novel, but I think we're finally getting there."

Judging from an early preview, the audience appeared to approve of that balance. While Celie's dire predicament is clear, there are scenes in "The Color Purple" that are more reminiscent of "Ain't Misbehavin'," the colorful and classic Fats Waller revue, than say, "Caroline, or Change," the 2003 Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical that also featured an oppressed black woman angrily challenging God because of her victimization. For all its artistic integrity, "Caroline" received mixed reviews, was snubbed for the best musical Tony Award and closed at a total loss.

In the musical of "The Color Purple," the brutality of Celie's husband Mister is more than compensated for by the good-natured behavior of his son, Harpo. Shug Avery, the free-spirited songbird who liberates the sensualist in Celie, is as vibrant as her feathered hats. And even Sofia's vicious encounter with institutionalized racism happens offstage, and is swiftly dispatched.

To sway an author

FOR his template for "The Color Purple," Sanders reached back to the golden era of Broadway and musicals like "Fiddler on the Roof," seeing parallels between the crisis of faith of Tevye, the beleaguered hero of "Fiddler," and that of Celie. But it was through "Noise/Funk" rather than "Fiddler" that Sanders was able to persuade reluctant author Alice Walker to allow "Purple" to reach the musical stage.

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