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It's got the soul of a survivor

No matter what form 'The Color Purple' takes -- book, film or play -- nothing gets lost in the translation.

December 09, 2007|Jan Breslauer | Special to The Times

Many books are made into films, and a few into genuinely good ones. Other literary works are given a second life as musicals. But it is the rare novel that inspires both a movie and a successful musical.

Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is one of the few.

Taking place over 40 years, from 1909 to 1949, in a small African American town in rural Georgia, Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of poor Celie, a young girl who suffers through rape, putative incest, separation from her babies and sister, domestic violence and more. In the end, she finds her inner strength and is redeemed.

"I was very much in service to ancestors when writing the book," says Walker, speaking from her home in Northern California. "I wanted very much to honor the absences on our soil. I was almost like a priestess when I was writing, someone in the role of responsibility of bringing this story to light.

"Until we understand the dynamics of those ancestors who were dragged here, until we really spiritually and emotionally get their struggles and triumphs and pains, it's going to be impossible to deal with what we need to deal with in order to transform our society, which is in such desperate need of transformation."

The novel was first published to acclaim in 1982. Three years later, the Steven Spielberg movie, starring Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, was released. And the $10-million Broadway musical opened in 2005. Following stops in Chicago and San Francisco, the touring company, directed by Gary Griffin and with the original creative team, opens at the Ahmanson Theatre next Sunday.

Why has this story translated so well? And what makes it as relevant today as the day it was written?

"The epic scope of it has translated time and translated into different mediums," says Harry Elam, the Olive H. Palmer professor in the humanities at Stanford. "It hits at central themes that are not just common to black women but cross-racial: endurance, faith, redemption, sisterhood. It's dark, but the end is uplifting. The idea is that she triumphs, and endurance is the message."

Serious staying power

It is unusual among recent Broadway fare in that it is not primarily comedic. "It is a show of real significance," says Peter Schneider, producer of "The Lion King" and "Aida." "It's a good show, a fun show, but it's about empowerment, about saying you can be somebody. It's rare that a show comes along and says to people of nonwhiteness that you can be somebody."

It took Scott Sanders, the driving force behind the musical, eight years to bring "The Color Purple" to Broadway. The process began in 1997, when Sanders, then president of Mandalay Television, mentioned to his colleague Peter Guber that he was interested in turning the book into a musical. Guber called Walker, who agreed to meet with the two men. And after a courtship that involved bringing Walker to New York to see Broadway shows, Sanders won her consent.

"I had gone through a lot having the movie made and had come out of that oftentimes sick and tired, though joyful about what we managed to create," Walker recalls. "The young should especially know that when you write something you feel is a gift, and something the ancestors feel is a gift, you have to factor in the suffering. But the main thing here was Scott Sanders, who was not only persuasive and empathetic and brilliant in his thinking but also a good person, and that was so clear to me."

What originally inspired Sanders was the book. "When I first read it, I was so moved by Celie, I couldn't believe that anyone could be treated the way she was treated and then come out at the end as a completely evolved whole person who was able to forgive," he recalls.

Many, including Walker, feel that the musical is closer to the book than the movie. "It is closer because the relationship between Celie and Shug is more explicit and joyful," says the novelist. "I don't feel they were able to go into the relationship in-depth in the film, though I deeply appreciate the tentative and precious kiss in the film. But in the play it's so much more clear that they have an actual ongoing relationship."

Perhaps because he had never produced a musical, Sanders was blissfully unaware of what others would see as an obstacle -- the serious tone of the story. "Naively, I don't think I really thought about how challenging the story was," he says. "Along the way, many people said, 'Are you crazy? You can't sing and dance that story.' "

But many saw a potential to reach an underserved audience through its deeply affecting story.

"It has the key ingredient for success: emotion, emotion, emotion. And the production is one of tremendous emotion and tremendous connection," Schneider says. "I have such great respect for Scott, who has championed this piece for such a long time and has such faith in the power of this piece to move people."

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