PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Color Purple: Oprah Delivers Walker's Letters

By Harry Haun
02 Dec 2005

You know you're at a Grade A opening when the stairways are lined with smartly dressed ooglers observing the glitz from a respectful distance on high. This was apparent at the intermission at the Broadway Theatre, and it continued at the library, which is steeped in steps. All four floors were used for frolicking. The press pit where the celebs parade their egos and fancy wears was on the first landing. On the second landing, the party began under a giant Christmas tree. Guests were greeted with special martini concoctions colored and called "Purple" (don't ask), and the meals were predistributed in boxes supplanting the usual run through the buffet line. "I feel like a movie extra getting a box lunch," cracked Mario Cantone, arriving with his partner, Jerry Dixon, LaChanze's co-star in Once on This Island. Cramped little tables and chairs were squeezed in the available space on the staircase landing, leaving the main room free for fraternizing and drinking.

From this slightly elevated level, it looked like a ball at Brideshead in the main hall. The Family Roth (Daryl and Jason) opted to squat and eat here, but more adventurous souls like Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer pressed on to the third floor, where indeed there were tables with high chairs reserved for the game celebrity and the show's personnel.

Jonathan Tunick, who did his usual superb job of orchestrating, was situated here. He's looking forward to his next musical for director Hal Prince, Paradise Lost (nee A String of Pearls), some Lubitsch-like frou-frou adapted by Richard Nelson from Joseph Roth's The Tale of the 1002nd Night. Ellen Fitzhugh will do the lyrics, and Tunick (who, significantly or not, is growing a Sondheim-like beard) "may be writing some original music. But mostly I'm adapting the music of Johann Strauss II." Which is logical since Prince once cast Tunick as Strauss (in the movie version of A Little Night Music). "It was a kind of inside joke," Tunick admitted sheepishly. "They made me up like Johann Strauss with the curly black hair and the big mustache. When the movie ends, the camera pulls way back as we're all taking a curtain call, and you can see me in an embrace with Elizabeth Taylor. I was hoping for a Best Supporting Actor, but it didn't happen . . ."

The only star to make it to the fourth floor was the star of The Fifth Element, Bruce Willis, who seemed perfectly at home with the dim light, mirrored ball and disco blasting. He was waxing nostalgic about the film Steven Spielberg made in 1985: "I saw it under very special circumstances before it came out. Whoopi Goldberg [the film's Oscar-nominated Celia] asked me to see it and tell her what I thought. Now, here we are 20 years later, and it's on Broadway. Who would have thought it? That never happens."

Next up for him is a film he'll shoot in New York with Halle Berry called Perfect Strangers, starting in January. "It was meant to be shot in New Orleans," he said, "but, unfortunately, all the chaos that happened down there prevented us from doing that. But we just want to send out our love to everyone there who's still going through hard times."

Meanwhile, back on the second floor, the room was overrunning with iconic figures who would crystallize into little clusters where each would hold court. It appears that Oprah produced not only a show but also an impressive guest list, full of the famous who were responding if not to a command performance then at least to the invitation of a friend.

Glittering and being gay: Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Chris Rock, Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Isaac Hayes, Tina Turner, Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, Phylicia Rashad and her sister (Debbie Allen, one Sweet Charity removed from Broadway), Iman and David Bowie, Norm Lewis, Ashford & Simpson, Ashanti, John Weidman, Quincy Jones (like Oprah, a producer of this show and a carryover from the film), Ann Curry, Jonathan Demme (who directed Oprah in Beloved and is now readying a Neil Young performance film, Heart of Gold, for Sundance), Al Roker, Rev. Al Sharpton, Lynn Whitfield, Paul Reubens, Donald and Melania Trump, Rob Fisher, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Anna Deveare Smith, S. Epatha Merkerson, Wynton Marsalis, Jerry Seinfeld, Taylor Hackford, LA Reid and Dennis Miller.

Special spectacles of the evening: Naomi Campbell and Jennifer Lewis colliding with such squealing girlish glee in the theatre lobby that Lewis' wig flew off; Stevie Wonder being led by a guard upstairs to his table on Level 3; Spike Lee in a defiantly brown suit beating another notable African-American director, George C. Wolfe, to the men's room in a mad dash at intermission; and the razzle-dazzle snap, crackle and pop of the show's formidable female core posing for group shots in their gorgeous get-ups—LaChanze, Fields, Krisha Marcano, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Elizabeth Withers-Mendes. In a word, WOW.

Withers-Mendes, the show's Shug, came in character in a gown that could only be called scarlet (with feathers, too), and her manner wasn't bashful either. "I love Shug Avery because our characters are so closely related," she declared. "Shug Avery's from the church. Elizabeth's from the church. Shug Avery loves love. Elizabeth loves love. Shug Avery loves the shock factor. Elizabeth loves the shock factor. Shug Avery loves people to be happy and secure in who they are. And that's where Elizabeth is. It wasn't a reach. "

The whole evening—play and party—was passionately Purple. The one thing missing from the library bash was Oprah herself. But you can't say she didn't give at the office this day.