"I always thought Celie's journey was universal," explained producer Scott Sanders about why he began his journey of bringing the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the stage as a musical theatre piece. At a preview presented before members of the press Oct. 12, he termed it, "the longest pregnancy" he's endured.
"We all have obstacles to overcome and while our life's journey may not be identical to Celie, I think that triumph over adversity and moving on and finding self-love and yourself and your voice is something that we all need to do. I didn't feel like it was a black story or a woman's story, I thought it was universal and always thought the story sang, that it had so much music in its soul."
His journey has been marked by scribe Alice Walker along the way, from her initial response ("You seem like a very nice guy, but I don't think so," according to the producer) to the author's reaction after seeing the world premiere production at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre.
"Probably the most intimidating moment of all was sitting next to Alice Walker in Atlanta when she saw it for the first time. She didn't say a word to me at the end of the show and didn't talk to me for a day — which is unlike her, because we talk all the time. [She then] came back and saw it the second night. I thought 'Oh my God, what is she thinking? What is she thinking?' and then she finally came over to me and said 'I love it.'"
Many have been skeptical about musicalizing a work that deals with such serious subject matter, Sanders noted. "A lot of people forget that there were lots of musicals, great musicals, that have had dramatic storylines, though perhaps not so much in the last couple years—it's been more musical comedy. I wasn't afraid of that, but I felt that it was really important to find a balance between the humor that already existed in Alice Walker's novel and the heart that I don't think you can manufacture in a musical — it's either in the story or it's not — and Alice gave it to us in every one of her characters." "We didn't want to be sentimental about telling the story, we wanted to be straightforward about it and we wanted to show these lives as they evolved. Some people [in the show] have great emotional, excited times in their lives and other times, they're more problematic, but I think they really reflect society and all of us. I mean look at New York in the last 10 years and all the things we had to go through."
The musical's bookwriter Marsha Norman — a Pulitzer Prize winner herself for her 1983 work 'Night Mother — insisted the weight of the story is nothing new. "This story begins where all great stories start, with loss. 'Hansel and Gretel' begins with the parents are gone, 'Cinderella' and 'Sleeping Beauty,' the mom is dead."
Celie's tragic circumstances propel the story, according to Norman. "She basically has to learn to live without everything she thought she had to have: her children, her sister, her family. [But] you have to lose everything in order to find out who you are."
As a librettist, Norman — already a Tony Award winner for Best Book with The Secret Garden — found her biggest challenge was in bringing the "dull sparrow"-like Celie to the forefront of the musical. "We have to really make it her story, get her to be the one you had a stake in. We have to root for her to survive what happens and triumph and learn to love and forgive and find joy in her life and reconnect with her sister after a lifetime; that journey is what we have to tell."
Both Norman and Sanders noted the work has changed since its debut run in Atlanta, an obstacle the show's central actress, LaChanze, has had to overcome. "The one thing I've learned through this journey is to stay rooted in who Celie is and not get taken by all of the changes, or what people are starting to say or the hype of the show," she said. "I've gotten more firm in my convictions to really stay grounded in who Celie is."
For the star, the culmination of Celie's journey is her favorite moment. "It's very emotional... my 11 o'clock number ["Bountiful Life"]. The reason I love the song so much is because it's when Celie discovers who she really is and her own value. It's an anthem for women and for people."
Closing in on the show's Broadway berth, perhaps the crowning moment of his journey with the work, producer Sanders received more help from an unexpected source. "A few weeks ago, I was walking around in SoHo, and my cell phone rings and I hear 'Hi, Scott, it's Oprah Winfrey.'" The media maven who had been part of the 1985 film version of the novel had learned about the show and offered to invest. Sanders — who had only dreamed she might come to opening night — had already raised the capitalization needed to produce the work. "We already had all our money, but who am I to say no to Oprah Winfrey?" He and a few associates met with Winfrey in Chicago he reports she has since been a great addition to the show: "She calls or emails everyday with new ideas: 'What if this person recorded the song for the cast album as a bonus track?.' She did radio spots for us, [etc.]"
Though an arduous journey for Sanders, the humble impresario noted his is a backseat on the producing team. "I actually asked her if she would put her name above the title as a presenter as well as a producer and she said 'I can't do that to you, you've been working on this for eight years, I'd never do that.'" Sanders replied, "My name doesn't sell two tickets, put your name on the marquee."