NEW YORK — The story of how "The Color Purple" came to Broadway is a tale as epic as that of Celie, the lead character. Well, almost. Celie's search for love takes a lifetime. The musical, based on the venerated book by Alice Walker, only took eight years.
But along the way, lead producer Scott Sanders had to replace the original playwright and choreographer, recast a pair of major roles, raise $10 million in capital, and revamp the adaptation in time for its Dec. 1 opening. Moreover, Mr. Sanders's constant concern has been upholding Walker's reputation and re-creating the poetic sweep of the Steven Spielberg film adaptation that garnered 11 Oscar nominations. "I wasn't going to be the guy who messed up 'The Color Purple' on Broadway," he says.
No matter how beloved the source material, launching a new musical on Broadway can be harder than snagging front-row seats for "The Odd Couple."
While "Mama Mia" has grossed $1 billion worldwide and "Wicked" is a box-office juggernaut on its national tour, failed attempts like "Good Vibrations" and "Lennon" clutter the theater landscape. It can take years for a show to recoup its start-up costs because few shows can cover their weekly running expenses until the profits kick in. "Four out of five Broadway musicals fail," says Jed Bernstein, president of the League of American Theaters and Producers.
Though it boasts a rousing gospel, ragtime, and jazz-influenced score and pedigree talent, the show deals with difficult issues such as racism and sexual abuse, a hard sell for Broadway audiences accustomed to the gags and vaudeville schtick of hits like "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Hairspray." Celie, the 14-year-old black girl at the heart of "The Color Purple," is abused by her father and sent to live with a man who treats her little better than a household slave. When Celie's sister, Nettie, is taken from her, she pours out her longings in letters to God. Celie later finds solace in the friendships of two women in her rural Southern community.
Sanders, a former executive at Radio City Music Hall, believed that the book could be adapted to the stage when he arranged a meeting with the author at her home in Berkeley, Calif. Walker was initially hesitant about giving her blessing, but Sanders won her over after inviting her to visit him in New York. It then took two years to secure the rights and find the composer-lyricist team.
"I wanted the music to sound authentic, knowing there was this 40-year period of great American music to draw from," says Sanders. "I promised Alice that if I couldn't deliver a sound that lived up to her novel and the film, I'd drop the project."
After considering many songwriting teams, he risked assigning the score to Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, a pop-song trio who have never worked on Broadway. Between them their hits include recordings by Madonna, The Pointer Sisters, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
"I was so excited with their audition songs that I called Alice and played them for her over the phone," Sanders says.
Another Broadway newcomer, associate artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Gary Griffin, was next on board. Mr. Griffin, in turn, cast LaChanze, an actress who won a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical "Once on This Island," as Celie. But Sanders's first choice of playwright, Regina Taylor, was too busy with the Broadway opening of her play, "Drowning Crow," to deliver a script on deadline. She was replaced by Marsha Norman, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist for "'night, Mother" in 1983. She had a clear vision from the outset. "The book of a musical is actually a machine," says Ms. Norman. "It's the underlying structure. You have to figure out what is it about this book that will make a musical."
Team in place, Sanders decided on a fall 2004 test run of the musical in Atlanta. Yet, despite a sold-out run and cheering audiences, a review in trade magazine Variety summed it up as "well-meaning but overly prosaic." In other words, an overhaul was needed.
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A year has passed since Atlanta. The darkened auditorium of the Broadway Theatre is strewn with plywood tables erected over the backs of the seats where the director and key crew personnel sit - when they're not pacing. The November previews are just days away and the creative team, barely illuminated by a series of goosenecked lamps, use walkie-talkies to communicate with the stagehands who are adjusting the revolving stage set, rearranging props, and attending to finicky details like the handles on the doors of the set.
But these small, last-minute tweaks are nothing compared with the undertaking of the previous nine months. Sanders has had to raise $8 million for Broadway. According to Business Week, the theater will need 75 percent capacity with audiences paying full-price to repay the investment in a year.
In the jump to New York, Sanders made big changes. He's replaced two of the leading actresses. Donald Byrd, artistic director of Seattle's Spectrum Dance Theater, was hired as the new choreographer. "They needed to utilize movement as an element to tell the story," says Mr. Byrd. "Book and song were used in Atlanta, not dance." LaChanze, too, has deepened her role as Celie. "I was allowed some input into the character," she says. "I bring the strength in her vulnerability."
Despite long hours of rehearsal, there's a palpable air of excitement and optimism in the theater. In mid-September, the musical received a colossal boost from an unexpected benefactor: Oprah Winfrey. The media queen, who was nominated for an Oscar for the 1985 movie, offered to back the production with a $1 million investment. Her name now appears over the title on the theater marquee, and she has hosted the cast on her TV show.
Now the countdown to opening night is on. Since the cast's appearance on Oprah, the theater has been more than 80 percent full for previews, gaining each week. At least one early showing attracted a multiracial crowd that gave the cast a standing ovation. Sanders marvels at what has been accomplished to date.
"Producing a Broadway musical from scratch is the most challenging thing I've done," he says. "It's no wonder to me now why it's so difficult to make them great."
In addition to the shows that have become Times Square staples - "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Producers" - there are some new kids on the block. A selection of productions that are just raising their curtains:
The Color Purple
Based on the bestselling novel by Alice Walker
Opens Dec. 1
Broadway Theatre Telecharge: 800-432-7250
The Woman in White
A tale of romance and deception with a new score by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Opened Nov. 17
Box office: (212) 382-0100
Based on the life story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons
Opened Nov. 6
August Wilson Theatre
Tickets by phone: (212) 541-8457
The tale of the demon barber of Fleet Street with music by Stephen Sondheim
Opened Nov. 3
Eugene O'Neill Theatre
• For details of all other shows, go to www.playbill.com