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Color Purple Premiere New York
December 1, 2005

'Purple' primed for Broadway

By WENDELL BROCK Cox News Service Wednesday, November 30, 2005 ATLANTA — With promotional help from Oprah Winfrey and the Empire State Building, a revamped "The Color Purple" gets its Broadway unveiling Thursday, a little more than a year after its Atlanta world premiere.

Lead producer Scott Sanders spent nine years and $11 million developing the musical version of "The Color Purple," based on Georgia native Alice Walker's beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. He now promises a glitzy opening-night event. The Empire State Building will be bathed in purple light, and the purple carpet outside the Broadway Theatre will be plush with A-list guests: Sidney Poitier, Tina Turner, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Joel, Leontyne Price, Clay Aiken and Jason Biggs, to name a few.

The evening's biggest star, of course, will be Winfrey, who appeared in Steven Spielberg's 1985 film version and invested $1 million in the show — in exchange for an over-the-title producing credit."The Color Purple" also will heighten the national profile of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where the early version played to sold-out houses last fall. But Sanders says the musical, which features a director and songwriting trio who are new to Broadway, will look much different than it did here. The changes include new choreography and new material for lead character Celie, played by Broadway favorite LaChanze, a Sept. 11, 2001, widow who amassed a loyal fan base while performing in Atlanta.

On the financial side, Sanders says that Winfrey's decision to back the musical, made just eight weeks before its opening, has been a box-office catalyst. "We've done a tremendous amount of ticket sales since the ["Color Purple"] cast was on the Oprah show on Nov. 11," Sanders said, "and several million dollars' worth of tickets in the last 10 days or so." Early this week, a production representative said advance ticket sales were between $8 million and $9 million. It won't hurt that the queen of daytime television is making a rare appearance Thursday on CBS' "Late Night With David Letterman," her first interview with him in 12 years.

All in all, it has been a fairly smooth creative journey to Broadway, with only a couple of personnel changes — not bad for a process that requires enormous amounts of time and money and exhaustive, last-minute revisions. Librettist Marsha Norman (a Pulitzer Prize winner for " 'Night, Mother") replaced original playwright Regina Taylor before workshops began in New York in early 2004, and modern-dance icon Donald Byrd stepped in for ousted choreographer Ken Roberson after the Alliance tryout. But director Gary Griffin and songwriters Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Allee Willis have survived the process, as have the entire design team and the bulk of the cast.

By comparison, Disney's "Aida" — the last Broadway musical to get an Alliance world premiere — had a much bumpier trajectory, including a second out-of-town tryout in Chicago and a new director, librettist and designer after its 1998 Atlanta run.

The Alliance will receive a small royalty from performances of "The Color Purple." Once the producers' investment is recouped, it will earn a small percentage of profits. Neither Sanders nor Alliance managing director Thomas Pechar would spell out the details.

They do have an ongoing royalty participation in the show," Sanders said. "Inasmuch as the show will hopefully and eventually be profitable, they will benefit financially. We clearly are not anywhere close to recoupment or making a profit at this point, and while we are happy with our ticket sales, we have a long way to go."

The $11 million investment would be made up in a year if they sell an average of 75 percent of the tickets at each show, Sanders said. The tradition of an out-of-town run, in front of a live audience but away from the glare of the New York critics, is not unusual. It allows for public feedback and private tweaks.

A recent BusinessWeek article said that Winfrey and Sanders felt that Celie's songs could be better. On Monday, Sanders clarified that report, saying they had been fretting over the "character arc" of a heroine who is invisible at first — but ultimately invincible.

Since Atlanta, "Celie's music has definitely changed," he said, from lyrics to orchestration to her duet partner. Celie's new song, "I'm Here," is now the "11 o'clock number."

No further changes are expected.

"We froze the show last Wednesday, the night before Thanksgiving," Sanders said. "We did work right up until the end and feel very happy with the changes we made to the show."

Wendell Brock writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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