The color of money is 'Purple'
But more important, The Color Purple on Broadway finds an unprecedented niche audience in people of color.
By JOHN FLEMING
Published June 11, 2006
The Color Purple is up for 11 Tony Awards tonight, but the most impressive thing about the musical adapted from Alice Walker's novel is not so much what happens onstage as who attends the show.
One night in March, a long line of ticketholders clogged the sidewalk outside the Broadway Theatre. There was that palpable buzz of anticipation that precedes the performance of a hit show. The people were predominantly black and somewhat more formally dressed than a typical midweek theater crowd.
"We are drawing about 50 percent of our audience from the African-American community,'' said Scott Sanders, lead producer of the show. "Originally, when I started to put this project together, I thought that if we could exceed 10 percent black attendance, that would be significant. So I think this is unprecedented.''
Sanders is probably right. Last season, the average attendance of African-Americans at all plays on Broadway was just 3.8 percent, a survey by the League of American Theatres and Producers found. The overall audience was overwhelmingly white, representing 77.8 percent of the total, a pattern that has been repeated year after year.
"The Color Purple is a phenomenon,'' said George Wachtel, president of Audience Research & Analysis in New York. "Every so often a show comes along that taps into this audience.''Since opening Dec. 1, the musical has consistently been among the highest-grossing shows in a record-setting season for attendance on Broadway, which drew more than 12-million people for the first time. In the week ending June 4, Purple had ticket sales of $1,006,822, topped only by Wicked, The Lion King and Jersey Boys.
"When I speak to audience members in the lobby after the show, what I often hear is a sense of pride,'' Sanders said. "There's pride in this story being told in a gorgeous theater with gorgeous costumes and sets and an amazing cast. I think there's pride in the African-American community that it's so successful.''
The Color Purple's success with African-American theatergoers is not entirely surprising, because of its all-black cast and famous source material. Walker's novel about the trials and tribulations of a black woman in rural Georgia has been one of the most influential books of the last 25 years, and Steven Spielberg made it into a popular movie in 1985.
But the Broadway musical also has another factor going for it: Oprah Winfrey, who was enlisted by Sanders to be the presenting producer and put her name above the title and her marketing clout behind the show.
"I don't want to denigrate the show, but I don't know that it would have had anywhere near the success it is having without the imprimatur and visibility she's giving it,'' Wachtel said.
Sanders begs to differ somewhat, saying, "I really attribute this largely to the power of Alice Walker's story and how beloved it is.'' But he also credits Winfrey, who starred in the Spielberg movie, with giving the musical an unusually high profile outside the New York City area. She featured the cast on her talk show in the second week of previews.
"I think Oprah Winfrey gave us national awareness,'' he said. "When the cast was on her show, suddenly our group sales exploded.''
There is a network of long-established groups that go to Broadway shows every year, but after the exposure on Oprah, many groups formed specifically to buy tickets to The Color Purple.
"We were seeing a tremendous amount of self-made groups: a church choir from Arlington, Va., a mother's birthday party with 10 or 12 relatives coming from Atlanta,'' Sanders said. "Our group sales people were saying, 'This is like Howard Dean's campaign. They're bubbling up from a grass roots level.' ''
The producer, who was raised in St. Petersburg, added, "They are not the normal groups that we sell once a year and they bring their bus up and go see a show. These are largely people who have not gone to Broadway before, and a lot of them are African- Americans, and a lot of them are from African-American churches.''
The Color Purple does have a strong religious appeal that is rare for a Broadway musical. Celie, the protagonist played by LaChanze in a gripping portrayal, writes letters to God for guidance through her suffering, mainly at the hands of men. The score (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) is highlighted by toe-tapping gospel tunes. The cast is terrific, and the rustic set and vivid costumes are true to the spirit of the story.
But playwright Marsha Norman never overcomes the intrinsic problem of having to compress into a musical Walker's epic narrative, which encompasses everything from the hardscrabble existence of toiling in the fields of Georgia to missionary work in Africa to Celie's ultimate triumph as a designer of women's pants. The reviews were less than stellar.
"The reviews were the reviews,'' Sanders said. "The people have weighed in, and clearly it's an audience hit.''
In the past, there have been other black-themed shows that were hits on Broadway, such as Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, a tap dance musical that ran almost three years in the 1990s. One of the most successful was The Wiz, an all-black version of The Wizard of Oz that had a four-year run in the 1970s.
Both of those shows, in Wachtel's view, also appealed to a substantial white audience. "That has to happen for a long run,'' he said. "A Broadway show cannot succeed financially just on the African-American market. It has to cross over.''
August Wilson was America's great black playwright, but his plays had a mixed record finding a white audience. "Fences was his big hit on Broadway, and it starred James Earl Jones,'' Wachtel said. "If there ever was an actor who crossed over, he was it. But some of the other Wilson plays, like Two Trains Running and The Piano Lesson, did very well with the African-American audience but never made it with the larger audience.''
Sanders plans to keep the marketing focus on African-Americans who may not be regular theatergoers, both for the Broadway production and tour of The Color Purple, which will start with an extended engagement in Chicago, Winfrey's base, in April.
"I think it's all about producing a show that appeals to a particular demographic and doing it in an authentic, first-class way,'' he said. "I think it's about creating a show that connects on a deep emotional level.''
Of course, the Tony for best musical would help, too. The favorites are Jersey Boys, inspired by the career and music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, or The Drowsy Chaperone, which spoofs musicals of the 1920s and received the most nominations, 13. The Color Purple is a long shot.
Here again Sanders sounds less interested in the opinions of theater experts, namely the 700 Tony voters (he is one), than in those of TV viewers. He's counting on the number that will be performed by The Color Purple cast during the awards broadcast to make an impact.
"The Tony Awards are an opportunity for people who have not seen your show to have a glimpse of what it is about,'' he said. "So the performance on the show is oftentimes more important than who actually wins.''
John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tony Awards will be broadcast tonight from 8 to 11 on WTSP-Ch. 10.
Major nominees for the 60th annual Tony Awards:
Play: The History Boys; The Lieutenant of Inishmore; Rabbit Hole; Shining City.
Musical: The Color Purple; The Drowsy Chaperone; Jersey Boys; The Wedding Singer.
Revival, Play: Awake and Sing!; The Constant Wife; Edward Albee's Seascape; Faith Healer.
Revival, Musical: The Pajama Game; Sweeney Todd; The Threepenny Opera.
Actor, Play: Ralph Fiennes, Faith Healer; Richard Griffiths, The History Boys; Zeljko Ivanek, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial; Oliver Platt, Shining City; David Wilmot, The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
Actress, Play: Kate Burton, The Constant Wife; Judy Kaye, Souvenir; Lisa Kron, Well; Cynthia Nixon, Rabbit Hole; Lynn Redgrave, The Constant Wife.
Actor, Musical: Michael Cerveris, Sweeney Todd; Harry Connick Jr., The Pajama Game; Stephen Lynch, The Wedding Singer; Bob Martin, The Drowsy Chaperone; John Lloyd Young, Jersey Boys.
Actress, Musical: Sutton Foster, The Drowsy Chaperone; LaChanze, The Color Purple; Patti LuPone, Sweeney Todd; Kelli O'Hara, The Pajama Game; Chita Rivera, Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life.
Direction, Play: Nicholas Hytner, The History Boys; Wilson Milam, The Lieutenant of Inishmore; Bartlett Sher, Awake and Sing!; Daniel Sullivan, Rabbit Hole.
Direction, Musical: John Doyle, Sweeney Todd; Kathleen Marshall, The Pajama Game; Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys; Casey Nicholaw, The Drowsy Chaperone.
For the complete list, go to www.tonyawards.com.