There is something precisely — instantly — in sync about the casting of LaChanze as Celie in the musical version of The Color Purple. In this solid, solitary image, it is not hard to see (on both sides of the footlights at the Broadway Theatre these days) the real and unreal stories of two women fighting their way through profound tragedies to happy endings.
The actress was pregnant with her second daughter when her husband, Calvin Gooding, an employee at Cantor Fitzgerald, perished in the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center. From that devastation she has managed to rebuild her life and her career: On July 30 she married artist and documentary filmmaker Derek Fordjour, and now she's bound for Broadway in what is clearly the most challenging role of her professional life.
Celie is a lot to play, as anyone can readily attest who has sifted through her 40-year correspondence with God in Alice Walker's acclaimed best-seller. A downtrodden black woman in Georgia during the first half of the last century, Celie endures a catalogue of catastrophes — usually at the callused hands of men (including Mister, the man she lives with) — somehow sustained by the healing power of love that comes her way from a sturdy triumvirate of women (Nettie, her adored sister from whom she is separated; Sofia, her firebrand daughter-in-law; and Shug, Mister's mistress, who proves to be her salvation).
Through this surprising sisterhood, Celie finds more than the strength to survive. She finds her own unique and eloquent voice, which now manifests itself both in song (by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — a trio of tunesmiths new to Broadway, picked by lead producer Scott Sanders) — and in choice words (by Marsha Norman, who won the Pulitzer in drama for 'night, Mother the same year — 1983 — Walker's "The Color Purple" won in literature). The musical world-premiered at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre in fall of 2004 and has since been in a fairly constant state of revision and fine-tuning. "I've never felt this intimately connected to a play, ever," admits Gary Griffin, who signed up as director almost three years ago. "We've worked up a sweat for so long that now it feels like a familiar thing."
Griffin, who has spent most of his 45 years in theatre, is only now getting around to his Broadway debut — like the majority of his cast. "Right before I got called for this," he says, "I did Show Boat in Chicago, and the actress who plays Sofia [Felicia P. Fields] was in that production. As she was making an exit one day, I jokingly said, 'Man, if we ever do a musical of The Color Purple, you'd be a perfect Sofia.' And it happened!"
Elisabeth Withers finally got to step up to the Broadway plate to play Shug when the Atlanta original, Adriane Lenox, chose to continue her Tony-winning work in Doubt. Krisha Marcano (Squeak) and Brandon Victor Dixon (Harpo) are also new, and Renee Elise Goldsberry (Nettie) and Kingsley Leggs (Mister) have only grazed The Great White Way.
It's like the movie version," Griffin points out. "When that came out in 1985, nobody knew who Whoopi Goldberg was. Or Margaret Avery. Or Oprah Winfrey." [Back then, Winfrey was one of the film's ten Oscar nominees (Best Supporting Actress). Now, she is one of the musical's producers — her billing reads, "Oprah Winfrey presents The Color Purple." Talk about supporting! What a difference a decade or two can make!]
The thing about this show is that you have to cast it so specifically," says Griffin. "You're looking for people who really get into the skin of these characters, and that doesn't always send us in the more well-known places. One of the reasons I wanted to get involved with this was because it was such a great story and would be fun to work on. But I also knew that theatrically, with this group of people, we were going to try things that hadn't been tried before. It's a great mixing of abilities to create one thing. Getting together and working together have built it. You don't hit a wall with it. It just keeps revealing itself."
The star on this $10 million Christmas tree revealed herself by just showing up. "We did auditions," recalls Griffin, "not because we were being demanding but because it's the kind of show you need to see how the material fits on you. From the first time LaChanze came in, we knew we had our Celie. She's a person who is a charismatic presence and can still disappear into a character."
A luminous Broadway presence since her Tony-nominated debut in 1991's Once on This Island, LaChanze grew up loving Walker's book and found something in Celie resonated with her. "There's a strength in her vulnerability I relate to," she says. "Also — and I hope this isn't too personal — I identify with her desire to stay in the background. I know the feelings of one who doesn't feel like the light in the room and wants to shrink away."
That's the special thing you have to have for Celie," says Griffin. "There are things you have to feel about her — like her passive qualities — but LaChanze's natural presence is so appealing she can just go there and the audience is in good hands."