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

By Harry Haun
December 2, 2005

The well-known and first-time theatrical producer, Oprah Winfrey, officially reached Broadway (the theatre as well as the street) Dec. 1 on the improbable arm of David Letterman, who personally escorted her from the stage of his television show at The Ed Sullivan Theatre to the theatre where she was in the process of premiering The Color Purple, a musical reading of Alice Walker's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel of letters by an unlettered but unstoppable black lass of the rural South (circa 1909-1949).



Okay, so it was just a half-block, but every foot of it was covered by an armada of CBS mobile cameramen ("Are you taking me right to the door?" asided an unbelieving Oprah en route), lined with a sea of waving fans behind the police barricades and peppered with blinding flashes from the startled but ever-ready papparazzi already in place ("Can you see anything?" asked David, doing his sincere but quirky kind of courtly). In terms of physical distance and on-camera TV time consumed, it wasn't much, but it did bring together two television icons who had sulked in their respective corners for 16.5 years.

Talk about your regal entrances! It was like a reality show version of Elizabeth Taylor's arrival at Rome in Cleopatra, and it set the bar for one of the most intensely glamorous and gorgeously begowned Broadway openings in years. The producer didn't favor the first-nighters with fantasy cars—just an involving, uplifting, affecting show—but the suspicion was strong she had a heavy hand in outfitting the female core of her cast with Versace and Jupiter Mews and other name-brand designers for the lavish after-party.

Inside the theatre, while papparazzi pandemonium reigned supreme outside, Oprah settled into her aisle seat down front and started chatting with her seatmates at how gracious and gallant she thought Letterman had been. One wouldn't have guessed from her casual air she had a dime riding on the show. And she seemed completely oblivious to the fact she was sitting right in a nest of critics, who had been rerouted from the previous night to opening night and would thus be writing their opinions under a white-knuckled deadline.

Reason for the crucial critical switch: LaChanze, who stars as the unlettered but learning Celie and is the bedrock of the show, had been unable to go on. Some say she was running a 102-degree temperature. Some say she had burst a blood vessel above her eye. Whatever the cause, her opening-night performance carried extra weight and dramatic urgency—but, true to this ultimate saga of female empowerment, LaChanze came through with heart-breaking brilliance.

Characteristically, LaChanze later waved away her AWOL the night before. "Oh, I got a bad cold," she shrugged off matter-of-factly, "high fever and the whole thing." She opted to take that night off to focus on the fierce opening. "I've been working on this night for two years now, so it was necessary to pull it out and do a great job. I had a great time tonight. In fact, I didn't even think about how I felt. All I thought about was the show."

As soon as the curtain came down, the audience rose as one, a little wobbly after the emotional wallop of the ending, but cheering—and that built progressively till LaChanze stepped forth, smiling that radiant smile of hers, delirious at last to be over the finish line.

The show's Harpo, Brandon Victor Dixon, then stepped off stage and brought up Oprah, who was greeted and kissed by—here's a priceless photo op—Felicia P. Fields, a Chicago actress who is making her Broadway debut as Harpo's wife, the hard-charging Sofia who had brought Oprah to the movies (with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination).

Oprah hit the stage, mike in hand, with a full tank of Thank Yous—six of them—and slowly distributed them as she revolved in front of the cast. Then, something unprecedented happened: Oprah Winfrey ran out of words. Caught up in the emotions of the moment, she came out with an "Er . . . er" like the rest of us. "It's a little big, a little big," she said, struggling for composure. "You know, I don't deserve anything for this. This is all God."

Music to the audience's ears. And when that applause subsided, she looked across the footlights. "I am thankful that every one of you could be here for what is The Place To Be tonight—in New York City and the world." No argument from the audience on that score.

"It's important that you understand that there are divine miracles happening when you are associated with The Color Purple," she told the crowd. "It has been a force in my life, and this is a full circle for me, and it could not have happened without Scott Sanders."

Sanders is the secret engine for this $10 million musical (it opened to an advance of $11 million), having initiated the project "a long time ago—ages, in fact" and having been its lead producer until Oprah took the reins in the last lap. His greatest contribution to the production has been in finding and hiring three unknowns to write the eclectic score of blues, gospel and Broadway sounds (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray). He also hired for director Gary Griffin, a Chicagoan unknown to Broadway (but well-known to, and well-liked by, critics who live in and who've trekked to The Windy City). And, last but no way least, he got a plot-rich, sweeping book out of Marsha Norman, herself a Pulitzer Prize winner (in fact, her 'night, Mother won the play prize the same year The Color Purple won Walker the novel prize—1983).

His was a massive, heroic job of producing, and he came to the stage of Broadway looking like a man listing toward a trip to Disney World. He, in turn, introduced and brought up another who made the whole thing possible, literally—the source: Walker.

She returned the compliment, thanking Sanders for decency and inspiration. "We must honor him," she said. "We must not overlook him. Don't be blinded by skin." And, with that, the audience realized, of the 37 people filling the stage, he was the lone white man.

Given the show's literary roots—and that noun is used very advisedly—the after-party was held at the main branch of The New York Public Library at 42nd and Fifth. You can tell the party-planners were thinking big. The last opening-night bash held at this venerable institution was for Beauty and the Beast (you'll recall Belle had a thing for books), and that show is 4,707 performances into its 12th year on the Main Stem. It may also be the last time most of the first-nighters had ventured into those hallowed, marbled hallways.

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.