Alice Walker at the premiere of The Color Purple (Courtesy AJC)
THE COLOR PURPLE: It's Saturday morning after the premiere of the musical version of The Color Purple at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. It's going on to Broadway next year, but we got to see it first. I was apprehensive about this project from the very beginning. How do you turn something as complex as Alice Walker's classic into a musical? Over the summer, I saw Adriane Lenox (who plays Shug Avery) sing one of the songs from the show and was completely underwhelmed. However, I can tell you that the The Color Purple is a majestic, jazzy masterpiece, but it definitely has some flaws. Pretty big ones, actually. Unfortunately, those flaws are in Marsha Norman's book, which relies almost solely on the dialogue from the Steven Spielberg film. As a matter of fact, in some parts the musical is almost a cut and paste, recreating scenes from the film on stage, but lacking their emotional wallop.
I went to the premiere with my poetry pal Cherryl Floyd-Miller, and we used this night to celebrate our birthdays (hers was Wednesday, mine was yesterday) and to revel in the power of Alice Walker, who we both adore. CF-M was right on the money when she said during the intermission that if you hadn't read the book or seen the film, there would be no emotional bond with the musical. Celie's multiple rapes by her step-father, the selling of those children, beatings by cruel husband Mister and separation from her sister Nettie are rolled out so quickly there's no gravitas, no gut-punch like you get from the novel or film. These harrowing moments just glide by on their way to what Norman and the musical collaborators (Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Allee Willis) felt was the meat of the story -- Shug Avery's arrival. The musical takes off on her arrival and the setpieces and tunes become jazzier, raunchier and heart-wrenching. Some have already poo-poohed Celie and Shug's love song "What About Love," but it's got break out hit written all over it. This is the song people will remember. Shug's juke joint jive, "Push da Button," was hot and Sophia's "Hell No" should become an anthem. "In Miss Celie's Pants" had the audience hooting with approval and "Africa/Olinka Exodus" is an emotional workout.
Act II gets off to a much better start as Nettie re-enters the story to tell of her joy, trials and tribulations as a missionary in Africa, where she has been a nanny to Celie's lost children. The lesbian relationship between Shug and Celie is given more play, but the book really devolves into a stage version of Spielberg's film, especially Sophia's arrest for punching out the white mayor and Celie's confrontation with Mister over Thanksgiving dinner. But even this seems like a rush job. Sophia recovers from her long years of beatings in jail and servitude as the mayor's maid so quickly it's like whiplash. The final reunion of Celie with Nettie and her lost children happens with so little fanfare it left me shaking my head in disappointment.
After working in theatre, I know that plays and musicals have to be condensed to fit on a stage, but the book for The Color Purple is a hack job. Sorry, Marsha. What this film has going for it is the music and set pieces. I still get tickled at the "Greek Chorus" of gossipy women who stole the show everytime they appeared on stage to talk about what was going on or to bridge gaps in the storyline. Everyone involved in this production should be soundly slapped around the head for leaving out the subplot of Shug's alienation from the church and her preacher father, which led to the spectacular gospel scene in the film. In the musical this is mentioned about twice and then at the end, Shug and her father show up together arm in arm. What a waste. There are so many other lost moments: Nettie teaching Celie how to read, Sophia's first reunion with her family after getting out of jail, and shamefully, Squeak's triumphant declaration that her name is "Mary Agnes." How could this be left out???
The other thing that doesn't translate is Celie's relationship with Mister. In the musical, they just seem like a bickering couple. There's one or two moments of raised hand, but it lacks threat of bodily harm. Only Mister sending Nettie away and hiding her letters to Celie is left to give him any kind of menace. When Norman re-inserts Celie and Mister's "make up" scene at the end, it rings even more false. Yet, I still loved this musical. Maybe it's because I love this story and these characters so much that they even transcend Norman's flawed script. What I fear is that those who might go into this musical cold without having read the book or seen the film (which seems almost impossible to me), will leave the theatre feeling short-changed. I am positive that the script will get some tinkering before it goes on to Broadway in fall 2005. I hope it triumphs there. It has all the makings of a smash.
At the end of the evening, Alice Walker came out on stage and I was biting my lip to hold back tears. There was one of my writing muses in the flesh, looking beautiful and getting political in her own subtle way. "I thank you so much," she started, gesturing to the cast, "because I know what you are doing tonight is healing us of our hurt and our woundedness. We are going to recover. We were never supposed to be sick forever. We are going to be well, and we are going to be shining, and we are going to be the people were meant to be." Bravo, Alice.