When Scott Sanders was thinking about turning The Color Purple into a Broadway musical, he knew he had to go first to author Alice Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1982 novel. That was eight years ago. Since then, Sanders and Walker, who is listed as an adviser to the production, have been in close touch about everything from character development to marketing plans.
The new musical has been in previews in New York's Broadway Theatre, with an official opening slated for Dec. 1.
Walker recently spoke to BusinessWeek Associate Editor Susan Berfield by phone from her home in Berkeley, Calif., about bringing The Color Purple to Broadway. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
What was your initial reaction to Sanders' proposal?
I didn't know Scott was as wonderful as he turned out to be. I thought maybe he was out of his mind. There's a lot of music in the story, but I thought it would be better as a play. I suffered after the film came out [critics said the movie smoothed over the book's raw edge], and I wasn't eager to go back there.
How did Sanders persuade you?
He wooed me. He said to me, "Let my women friends call you." So Shirley MacLaine called, Bette Midler called. Then I went to Manhattan, and he chartered a boat to take me around Manhattan, and he had invited beautiful people to join us. I thought, "this man is something."
It started to sound like if we get it right, it could be so wonderful. I'm always happy to take a risk if it looks like it will be entertaining. And this looked like a lot of fun. And he made it clear that if I didn't agree with a choice, that was the end of it.
How do you work with the creative team?
I speak directly to everyone. When I need to say something, which is rare, we gather, and I say what I feel is not right. I really know in my bones that they feel all these characters who are so dear to me and carry them high. They've made choices that help bring the story's fullness out, more so than in the movie.
How involved were you with finding the composers?
Scott went to the top first. He approached very famous people, and I really didn't like their music. I wanted people with a lot of love of the story. I wanted it to be authentic. Then he found them [Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray] right close to him. He has been friends with Allee forever. They put the first song together at Allee's kitchen table, banging out the rhythm with spoons. That's just the way I would have done it.
What did you think of the show's trial run in Atlanta in the fall of 2004?
I was praying as hard as Scott was that I would like it. And I was so grateful that I did. Afterward, when he told me would be making changes, I said: "Don't ruin it."
How do you feel about Oprah's involvement? [Oprah Winfrey, who co-starred in the movie version of The Color Purple, is an investor in the show and is listed as a producer.]
Eight years ago, I sent a note to her saying it would be wonderful to have her as an angel, to do a little angel work. My letter seemed to fall into empty space. We just went on without hearing anything. Now it feels good, very balanced, it makes this a community effort. I prefer having lots of people involved. It reassures me about how far the story reaches when people care enough to invest.
Describe your relationship with Sanders.
We've been in close touch for so many years. It's beyond the project. It's about being sure he had the benefit of my experience. And I've learned from him how to move in the world in a more energetic, producer way. He gets things done, but doesn't push and shove. He explains things, he wants everyone to understand where we are. Maybe that's why it took him eight years.
Are you worried about the critical reception?
I'm concerned for the actors, not for me. But I think it will be fine. I intend to come with a huge family, lots of friends. I hope part of what Scott learns is that the joy is in the creation. He has had tons of that. I've never seen anyone happier -- he has been ecstatic.