Having safely departed SFO at 7:45 am Thursday, I arrived around 6:00 pm at New York’s Broadway Theatre with little time to spare. Also arriving, fresh from the David Letterman Show up the street, was none other than Oprah Winfrey. After surviving the incredible crush of fans, photographers and police, I finally made it inside. The star-studded crowd in the lobby was truly a mind-bending scene: Oprah Winfrey, writer Alice Walker, Quincy Jones, NY Senator Charles Schumer, Rev. Al Sharpton, Sidney Poitier, Harvard Prof. Louis Gates, Angela Bassett and husband Courtney Vance, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Paul Reubens, (aka Pee-Wee Herman), Donald Trump, Ron Silver, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, David Hasselhof, Isaac Hayes, and of course Steadman Graham. And those are only the ones I saw or met. And the play? Simply one of the most moving and beautiful productions I have ever seen. In the words of Prof. Gates, “I laughed, I cried, I loved it.”
Co-producer Scott Sanders began developing and producing The Color Purple as a Broadway musical for the last eight years, and considers it the most challenging and rewarding experience in his personal and professional life. He’s deeply grateful to Alice Walker and Steven Spielberg for entrusting him with bringing the story of The Color Purple to the stage. “It’s been a labor of love”, he told me. “I just had to do it.”
For those of you who haven’t seen the original film, or read Walker’s book, The Color Purple is a story of tragedy, of love, of faith, ultimately redemption, which centers on “Celie”, (ably played by LaChanze, who recreates the role once played by Whoopi Goldberg), a young black girl of the 1930’s, twice raped by her step-father, and given to “Mister Albert”, (Kingsley Leggs), to marry. Mister is a cruel husband, who separates Celie from her sister, “Nettie”, (Renee Elise Goldsberry). Celie keeps the faith, and dreams of being reunited with her sister, thanks in part to two fantastic characters, first, the fiesty “Sofia”, (Felicia P. Fields, originally played by Oprah in the film), and sexy “Shug Avery”, (played by Elisabeth Withers-Mendes).
These women were absolutely stunning in both voice and dance. In fact, the entire ensemble was nothing short of amazing. Women play a central role in the story of the Color Purple, and each and every one I heard possessed an operatic prowess that was powerful to say the least. I do not know how in the world they can sing and dance their hearts out seven days a week, for twenty-eight weeks. (I was told that some of the preview performances were done by the understudies, to save the stamina and vocal chords of the cast.) The choreography was also superb, and a scene that featured African dancing was both acrobatic and infectious.
Celie’s journey through a world fraught with incest, rape, abuse and racism, was something that many, including myself, wondered could be done in a musical. The Color Purple doesn’t disappoint. The trio of Stephen Bray, (who wrote many of Madonna’s hits), Allie Willis, (who wrote the theme to TV’s “Friends), and Brenda Russell, (“How Stella Got Her Groove Back”) were more than up to the task, despite the fact none of them has ever done a musical. With Quincy Jones’ producing, (Jones wrote the film’s original score), and the direction of Gary Griffin, the pacing, and blending of period blues, jazz and gospel was extraordinary.
The set design and lighting was also spectacular. Spinning stage floors, seamless set changes, a top notch band, and the intimate setting of the 1800 seat Broadway Theatre, made for quite an entertaining evening.
Celie’s honesty, her courage and maturity, her love affair with “Shug Avery”, her success, the love of her sister and children, and the redemption of the nearly irredeemable “Mister” had everyone either laughing or crying in the aisles. At the end of play, a joyous and tearful Oprah took the stage alongside the cast to a standing ovation, thanking all for supporting the play, lauding the talents of all on and off the stage. Scott Sanders briefly spoke and concurred, and then gave the microphone to Alice Walker, to thunderous applause. Walker thanked the audience, and said, “This story is essentially a story about family, and about speaking the truth. History teaches us that. Only by being truthful, will any of us ever be free.”
E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, Madonna, Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart, Jimmy Cliff, and John Mayall among others. He is also the inventor of the musical instrument, the Drummstick. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org