Passion for 'Purple' has local roots

Producer Scott Sanders, a graduate of St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School, lands The Color Purple on Broadway with the help of Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones.

Published December 1, 2005

Scott Sanders spent eight years pursuing his dream of turning The Color Purple into a musical. Tonight the dream comes true when the show opens on Broadway.

"It's exhausting, but it's exhilarating," said Sanders, lead producer of the musical adapted from Alice Walker's novel about the trials and tribulations of a black woman in rural Georgia. "I've been producing for 25 years, and I've never experienced anything quite like this."

Sanders, 48, grew up in St. Petersburg, and he traces a connection from The Color Purple, as well as his work as a producer for black entertainers such as Diana Ross and Queen Latifah, all the way back to his days at Gibbs High School, from which he graduated in 1975. As part of the early years of desegregation of Pinellas schools, Sanders, who is white, was bused from his home in northeast St. Petersburg to the predominantly black Gibbs, on the city's south side.

"Up until ninth grade I didn't go to school with black students," Sanders said last week. "That was a remarkable experience, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I halfway wonder whether some of that has influenced me in working on great projects like The Color Purple and Queen Latifah and Diana Ross. You never know how your creative thoughts are formed as a younger person."

With an all-black cast, The Color Purple is seen as a significant effort to attract a black audience to the Broadway theater. It even has the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey, who was enlisted by Sanders to be the presenting producer and put her marketing clout behind the show.

Sanders, who has lived in New York since graduating from the University of Florida in 1979, has a long resume as a producer. For 15 years, he put on concerts at Radio City Music Hall by everyone from Liberace to Sting, Ross to the Grateful Dead. The production company he founded, Creative Battery, was responsible for acclaimed solo Broadway shows by Elaine Stritch and Dame Edna. He produced Queen Latifah's Grammy-nominated jazz album, The Dana Owens Album.

Ever since reading Walker's novel, and then seeing the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie, Sanders thought that the story of Celie, the protagonist of The Color Purple, had potential as musical theater.

"I found Celie's journey so inspirational," he said. "I thought her story of triumph over adversity was something that anyone could relate to, male, female, regardless of race. And it felt musical to me. I could hear music in that 40-year window of time in Georgia during a period when there were so many rich genres of black American music."

Many find The Color Purple an improbable source for musical theater, but Sanders likens it to Fiddler on the Roof, a classic that deals with a pogrom, poverty and Tevye's determination to hold onto tradition in his Russian village.

"Like Fiddler, here you have a community of people that you follow over a long period of time," he said. "What Alice gave us is a book with amazing heart, and it continues to live and breathe now on the stage."

Sanders' work on the musical dates to 1997, when he was president of Mandalay Television, a production company headed by Peter Guber, who, along with Quincy Jones, had produced the Spielberg movie. Guber provided Sanders with an introduction to Walker, and after an elaborate courtship, the novelist gave the project her blessing.

Another important contact was Jones, who did the score for the movie. On Valentine's Day this year, Sanders played a tape of some songs from the musical for Jones, who signed on as a producer.

Then came the piece de resistance in the person of Winfrey, whose career took after she played Sofia in the movie. Sanders had long hoped that Winfrey would get behind the musical, helping to promote it on her daytime television talk show, and he had put out various entreaties to her. All his maneuvering finally came through on a Saturday in September.

"I was walking around in SoHo and my cell phone rang," Sanders said. " "Hi, Scott, it's Oprah Winfrey. How can I help?' "

Winfrey has thrown herself into the musical. She invested $1-million of its $10-million cost, and "Oprah Winfrey Presents" runs above the title on the marquee. The cast performed on her show and there's a story in her magazine, O. Tonight, she will be on the Late Show with David Letterman to talk up the show, which is playing right across 53rd Street from the CBS studio, at the Broadway Theatre.

The support of Winfrey has led some to deem The Color Purple "critic proof," suggesting that it could succeed even with bad reviews, but Sanders isn't so sure. "What Oprah has been able to do is elevate the profile of the show," he said. "I think it has to stand on its own two feet creatively and critically."

The Color Purple has another Tampa Bay area native involved, choreographer Donald Byrd, who grew up in Clearwater, which Sanders learned when they started working on the musical. Known as a modern dance choreographer, Byrd is making his Broadway debut, as are several members of the creative team.

Music and lyrics are by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, whose backgrounds are in pop music. Between them, the three have written songs for Madonna, the Pointer Sisters and Earth, Wind and Fire, but this is their first theater project. Director Gary Griffin also is making his Broadway debut. Book writer Marsha Norman won a 1983 Pulitzer Prize for her play 'night Mother.

LaChanze stars as Celie. Her previous Broadway credits include a Tony-nominated performance in Once on This Island and Ragtime.

The musical had a tryout last year at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, and it has been substantially rewritten since then, a process that continued in previews on Broadway. "We're changing the overture and putting in a new song," Sanders said just nine days before the opening. "We're down to the last throes of making fine tunes."

Sanders looks back on his youth in St. Petersburg with fondness. He was class president at Gibbs, and during college he was an intern in the advertising department of the St. Petersburg Times.

He credits one of his early producing triumphs to his upbringing in St. Petersburg. When he was trying to convince Liberace to bring his Las Vegas show to Radio City Music Hall, he told him he had gone with his grandmother to see the pianist at the Bayfront Center, and knew from that experience that he would go over big at the music hall. And so Liberace did in a lavish production involving a 30-foot Faberge egg.

Sanders' mother and sister live in Boca Raton, and he doesn't get back to St. Petersburg much anymore. The last time, he drove by Gibbs and saw that it had changed. The school is now home of the Pinellas County Center for the Arts.

"I heard that it was now an arts magnet school," he said, "and I thought that was ironic considering what I went on to do."

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com