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Delicate maneuvering brings Oprah aboard `Color Purple' musical



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CHICAGO - When Steven Spielberg made the movie version of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" in 1985, he did not use Oprah Winfrey to sell his wares. Sure, there was an unproven - and hungry for attention - actress with that name playing the role of mistreated Sofia, but she wasn't thought able to move any tickets. In an oft-published story, Winfrey's friends like to remind people that Winfrey's name wasn't even on the poster.

Twenty years and 49 million regular viewers later, Winfrey's sudden and unexpected endorsement of the upcoming musical version of that very same Alice Walker story has propelled what was looking like a mid-tier Broadway opening heavily dependent on positive reviews into a critic-proof international megahit.

Oprah's impact on a Broadway show is unknown territory - Winfrey has never before formally got behind a Broadway show (or any other piece of theater, for that matter). Whoopi Goldberg's getting a producing credit didn't make "Thoroughly Modern Millie" profitable. And the endless ministrations of fellow talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell sure didn't help the ill-fated Boy George musical, "Taboo."

But Goldberg didn't get too much involved. And unlike O'Donnell - a gushing, ubiquitous Broadway fan - Oprah's endorsements are very rare. And as several once-unknown, now-rich authors can testify, Oprah's touch has never been anything but golden for any cultural property of any description. Regardless of prevailing critical opinion.

There is, therefore, no reasonable doubt that the producers' now-guaranteed chance to showcase the musical live on an upcoming Oprah Winfrey Show (some time in November), and to put the phrase "Oprah Winfrey Presents" above the title, are worth anything but millions and millions of dollars at the box office.

"With or without Oprah, it will still need to be a good show," says the experienced Broadway producer Michael Leavitt, who is not connected with "The Color Purple." "But her endorsement is a very big deal."

"I view Oprah's involvement as a great boost to Broadway," says Scott Sanders, the lead producer of "The Color Purple" (which begins performances in New York on Nov. 1). "And Oprah's audience is not just located in and around New York City. We may well be able to sit down in Chicago for much longer now."

Indeed, "The Color Purple" already had a close relationship with Chicago, even before Winfrey's involvement. Its director is Chicago's Gary Griffin (a regular director at Chicago Shakespeare Theater), making his Broadway debut. And the Chicago actress Felicia P. Fields (a star on numerous Chicago stages) is playing Sofia. So this is looking more and more like a careermaking moment for two of the Chicago theater's most dedicated and hard-working figures.

How Winfrey's endorsement - and financial participation as an investor in the show - was secured at the eleventh hour makes for a fascinating story.

Sanders - also a movie and music producer - secured the rights to do a Broadway version of the Walker novel more than eight years ago. He hired Brenda Russell, Alle Willis and Stephen Bray (whose collective prior compositions include the Earth, Wind and Fire hits "September" and "Boogie Wonderland") to compose the new score. And after various false starts, he ended up with Marsha Norman writing the book (based on a combination of the Walker novel and the movie screenplay) and Griffin directing.

The show saw the light of day in September 2004 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which is run by former Goodman literary director Susan Booth. It looked like a solid, capably executed show, albeit with songs that seemed somewhat out of sync with the book and a style that lacked both poetry and sweeping narrative scale. Walker - who had been involved from the start - was in attendance.

But Sanders had not yet called Winfrey.

On the face of it, this was a strange choice. You'd think she was an obvious target.

"Ever since I have been involved in this production," Griffin says, "the first or second question I am asked is about Oprah's involvement. I guess people have a strong identification with her in the piece."

But Sanders didn't want to blow any possible involvement right at the start.

"I wanted to do it the right way," Sanders says. "Oprah being in the movie didn't entitle us to anything. I didn't want her to think we were trying to exploit her."

Winfrey, of course, gets innumerable requests for endorsements and appearances. Most are summarily denied.

"It is very, very hard to get people on her show," says Steve Traxler, the president of Jam Theatricals, which is not involved with "The Color Purple." "What she is doing here is a rare thing ... it must mean that she believes in the project."

Such, of course, is the value of keeping endorsements rare. Their value increases exponentially.

Eventually, Sanders got his opening.

"Several things happened last February," he says. "I was in Los Angeles with Queen Latifah for the Grammys. And I ran into Quincy Jones. He invited me over to his house. I took a CD, and I played seven songs for him."

Jones, of course, was a producer of the movie version of "The Color Purple." He liked what he heard. He told his friend Oprah. But nothing happened.

Sanders then spent the spring and early summer fixing the problems from Atlanta - hiring a new choreographer, making some cast changes, changing the score, expanding the design. He slated a workshop production to show off the changes in July. The location in Midtown Manhattan happened - just happened - to be across the street from Winfrey's O Magazine, where Winfrey's best friend, Gayle King, is an editor at large. King came to the workshop. She e-mailed her pal.

"The next day I was in a store in SoHo, and the telephone rang," Sanders says. "It was Oprah. She wanted to be a producer. I said, `Let me see if I can carve out a position.'"

Actually, that was fairly tricky, because the $10 million show already was fully capitalized. But Sanders had little trouble persuading some of his investors to dial down their stake, given the benefits of having Winfrey onboard. She ended up making a big investment - in the low seven figures. And Sanders and his fellow producers made a secret pilgrimage to Chicago to discuss how Winfrey could help the show succeed. A deal was set.

"It was a combination of Gayle and Quincy that got her involved," says Carly Ubersox, a spokesman for Winfrey. (Winfrey herself declined to comment for this story) "And going to Broadway has always been her dream."

There is, perhaps, a danger of a backlash. A minor flap in the producer's office erupted two weeks ago when early press reports on Winfrey's involvement in the show said that the actual title was being changed to "Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple," a Hallmark Hall of Fame-like idea that suggests crassness, unseemly exploitation and a diminishment of Walker's novel.

Those perceptions were corrected vehemently and quickly: Winfrey gets above-the-line billing, but she's not the title of the show. Which may or may not be a good thing for the box office.

And although it would have a huge impact on the industry, there's no evidence Winfrey is suddenly about to start a Broadway theater club - let alone a theater club in her home city of Chicago.

Other potential endorsees need not rush to apply.

"You can't really compare outside ventures like this one to what Oprah does with the book club," Ubersox says. "The club is far more than just an appearance on the show. There is an online component. And readers have the chance to follow along with Oprah. Her involvement with `The Color Purple' is more similar to a Harpo Films venture."

Harpo Films is not the slam dunk that is the Oprah Winfrey Show ("Beloved" struggled, for example). But still, authors who have gotten face time with Winfrey in any guise - even if they are not part of the book club - still see their sales go through the roof. And Kathleen Rooney, who has published a book about Winfrey's influence on the literary world, sees Winfrey's willingness to promote "The Color Purple" as indicative of the show's changing direction.

"I think Oprah retreated into the self-help world for a long time," Rooney says, suggesting that the well-publicized fight with author Jonathan Franzen ("The Corrections") angered Winfrey enough to stay away from endorsing new works. "But now that she is picking living authors again for the book club, she seems more ready to engage with contemporary culture again. And with the Tom Cruise-on-the couch stuff, the show also seems to be showing more of an interest in celebrity culture. `The Color Purple' seems like an extension of that."

In Rooney's mind, "The Color Purple" may well be the beginning of any number of Oprah-approved cultural events. "It makes sense for her to use her power to reach beyond books," Rooney says. And because Winfrey, who prefers the national stage, rarely uses her influence to help merely local events in Chicago, it also make sense that she would put her attention on Broadway, the most prominent theatrical showcase in the world.

Alice Walker, of course, is far removed from Katie Holmes. For Winfrey, "The Color Purple" on Broadway surely represents a kind of full-circle progression - from breakout role to an opportunity for the kind of patronage that can make a world of difference for a new generation of performers and literary consumers. "Oprah always wants," Ubersox says, "to find ways to get more people to experience a story."

If the show falls short, will Oprah's involvement save it? Hard to say.

But Griffin says that the right changes have been made and that the piece stands perfectly well, Oprah or no Oprah.

"Everything came in response to that first draft in Atlanta," he says. "We have something we believe in now. We're hard at work."

"Oprah surprised us all by coming to rehearsal the other day," Fields says. "Everyone was shocked and excited. Then I thought, `Why am I jumping up and down like this? I'm the only one here who has to play her role.'"

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cjones5@tribune.com

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(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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