The Making Of The Color Purple

Behind the scenes as a masterpiece becomes a musical

Audio Slide Show >>

When Scott Sanders set out to turn The Color Purple into a Broadway musical, he made two critical decisions. He would approach Alice Walker, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel, himself to ask for her blessing. But he wouldn't ever appear to be seeking the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, who had played the sassy, tough Sofia in Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie version of the book and had later declared the experience one of the greatest of her life. With Oprah, you wait for her to come to you.

When Walker did finally agree to entrust her story to Sanders, she wrote a note to Oprah, asking her "to do a little angel work for the show." Oprah never responded. "My letter seemed to fall into empty space," Walker says. That was 1997. In July of this year, Sanders invited Gayle King, Oprah's confidante and editor of her magazine, to a reading of the show; King called Oprah during intermission and said they were doing her proud. But still no word.

Then one Saturday afternoon in late September, six weeks before previews were to begin on Nov. 1, when Sanders had all but given up hope, Oprah called. She asked simply: "How can I help?" To which Sanders, slightly nonplussed, replied: "Coming from you, that's an awesome and intimidating question." Then, as Sanders tells it: "I started to go on and on as I can do. She interrupted me and said, 'Scott, you had me at hello. Just come to Chicago."'

Sanders, two other producers, and his marketing staff arrived at the headquarters of Oprah's Harpo Inc. a few days later. Sanders didn't wait long to tell her how she could really help. "I asked her: 'Can we put 'Oprah Winfrey presents The Color Purple' on the marquee?"' She replied: 'You've been working on this for eight years. I don't want to steal your thunder.' I said: 'My name up there doesn't sell two tickets. Your name changes the paradigm."' And pretty much just like that, everything about the show, from its marketing plan to the prospects for its success, changed. What had been an unusually challenging and highly speculative venture -- a serious musical featuring a cast without stars and a creative team who are nearly all making their Broadway debuts -- was now merely as risky as any other $11 million show.

Broadway demands much of its producers. Sanders, who is 48 and has never produced a musical before, describes the job as wrestling an octopus, keeping all the puppies in the box, the hardest thing he has ever done, more white-knuckle than he'd like, and the most fun he has ever had. Sanders has to make crucial judgments often at the last minute and always with the knowledge that a single imprudent choice could undermine the entire venture. He has to balance artistic considerations with business ones. He has to keep the creative team and investors happy. And he has to keep everybody in sync, even though they work in different places and he has no office with The Color Purple on the door. After all that, the company he is running could last for years or fold in a matter of months; it could lose every penny invested in it or generate giant profits. As the saying goes: You can make a killing on Broadway, but you can't make a living.

Broadway plays are handmade products. There are no economies of scale. Every time a musical is performed it costs about $60,000. That's because ever since Cats opened in the U.S. in 1982, audiences, two-thirds of whom are visitors to New York, have come to expect elaborate musical productions. What upsets the financial calculus, though, are the natural limits of live theater. In New York, the buildings themselves are all historic landmarks, which means the owners cannot increase the number of seats. Nor can producers add shows to the weekly schedule: Union rules prohibit doing so. "The economics of Broadway are anti-American," says Nancy Coyne, chief executive of Serino Coyne Inc., an advertising and marketing agency that works with producers. "You can't sell unlimited quantities of tickets."

Quiz >>

Art and commerce have never been so closely linked as they are now on Broadway (and, indeed, as they are throughout the world of entertainment). The most pragmatic of producers have started to adopt business practices, such as endorsement and product placement deals, that are common in television shows and movies. The revival of Sweet Charity this spring included a line about Gran Centenario tequila; Hilton Hotels Corp. (HLT ) is sponsoring Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; and Hormel Foods (HRL ), which makes Spam, endorsed the musical Monty Python's Spamalot.

At the same time, producers are looking for ways to draw more people to Broadway, which sold about $770 million worth of tickets last year. That's where Hollywood comes in again. The deepening cultural exchange between the East and West Coasts is a reflection of the difficult economics of both. Movie studios have come to regard Broadway as an increasingly important place to lengthen the life of their own titles. Many have theatrical divisions, which primarily invest in productions; only Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) produces and finances shows entirely on its own. And while some cringe at the idea of, say, Legally Blonde opening on Broadway anytime soon (the producer is aiming for 2007), there are plenty who believe that turning familiar movies into big musicals may be the best way to improve the theater's high rate of financial failure. The harsh reality on Broadway is that four out of five musicals never recoup their investment. Even fewer turn a profit.

WOOING ALICE WALKER Back in 1997, when Sanders was the president of Mandalay Television in Los Angeles, he first started dreaming about venturing out onto Broadway. He had long thought that Celie, the main character in The Color Purple, was a remarkable protagonist, one whose emotional and spiritual growth was inspiring. And he believed that the story itself had, as he says, a pedigree: "It is a brand." Unlike nearly everyone else with whom he spoke about the project initially, Sanders was also convinced that The Color Purple had "music in it," that the themes of the story -- violence, racism, poverty, and ultimately forgiveness, love, and triumph -- could be conveyed in song.

The first person Sanders approached with the idea was his boss at Mandalay, Peter Guber, the former head of Sony Pictures Entertainment (SNE ) who just happened to have been the executive producer of the movie The Color Purple. Guber called Alice Walker, and one day not too long afterward Sanders visited the author in her brightly painted home in the hills outside Berkeley, Calif., to seek her blessing for the project (he later had to secure the rights to the story from Warner Bros. (TWX ) and Amblin Entertainment). She said to him: "You seem like a very nice man, but I'm not sure I want to do this again." Sanders took that as a maybe. He suggested that she call some of the other women he had worked with over the years, including Diana Ross, Bette Midler, and Shirley MacLaine, who could vouch for his character. Which she did, and which they did.

Then he invited Walker to Manhattan, where he took her to several musicals and chartered a yacht for a dinner cruise to introduce her to some of his friends in the theater community. (Before joining Mandalay, Sanders had been the executive producer of Radio City Music Hall for 15 years.) Finally, on the last night of her weeklong visit, when just the two of them were out to dinner, he promised that if she disagreed with any of his creative choices, he would follow her wishes. She gave her consent. As she says now: "I'm always happy to take a risk if it looks like it will be entertaining."

Sanders has intimately involved himself in both the creative and business demands of turning The Color Purple into a musical. His ideas are informed by two desires, he says: to fulfill his promise to Walker to maintain the integrity of the characters, whom she calls her ancestors, and to entertain as broad an audience as possible. From the start, he has tried to bring out the joy and sensuality of the story. "There are people who will think that the show isn't dark enough, that there's too much laughter," he says. "That was a deliberate choice. I didn't want people to leave during intermission."

RAISING $11 MILLION When Broadway came into its own a century ago, it was a place of big personalities and grand gestures. Producers in those days were showmen: They funded musicals on their own and did as they pleased. Now a producer usually needs a dozen or so investors to come up with the millions required to bring a musical to the stage. The glamour of the theater, the artistry, the excitement of live entertainment, abundant talent, opening night parties: Who wouldn't want to buy into that? But investors must also be fully prepared to lose every penny. In the best of situations, they serve as a board of directors, experienced enough to advise a producer, attentive enough to ask the right questions. In the worst, they behave like demanding relatives.

Sanders wasn't eager for that pressure right from the start. So about four years ago, he made a deal with AEG Live, a division of Phil Anschutz' entertainment business, and the HEAT Group in Miami to create a production company called Creative Battery. The company put $2 million into the show in 2002 and another $2 million or so later; those figures include Sanders' own contributions (he declined to specify his investment). AEG Live, which also helped negotiate a Visa International sponsorship that extends through 2006, is a strategic investor, says president and CEO Randy Phillips, "but I wouldn't stop Scott from pursuing his vision. He's taking a piece of clay and sculpting it. I'm betting on the sculptor." When it comes time to plan The Color Purple's national tour, a critical source of revenue for most Broadway musicals, AEG Live will be in charge, though.

That initial $2 million got The Color Purple through its month-long trial run in Atlanta last year. At that point, a reviewer in Variety said the musical was missing "a sense of the sweeping poetic scale demanded by both the material and the form," a critique Sanders agreed with. But the show played to sold-out houses and regularly received standing ovations. On opening night, Alice Walker saw it for the first time. As she says now: "I was praying as hard as he was that I liked it." She sat next to Sanders but said nothing afterward; Sanders was so nervous that he sat somewhere else the next night. At a reception later, Walker hugged him and said, "I can stop worrying now."

There was someone else there whose opinion Sanders was eager to hear: Roy Furman, the Wall Street financier, frequent Broadway investor, and big-time Democratic Party fund-raiser. Years ago, Furman had hired Sanders to produce an event for then-President Bill Clinton, and they had remained friends ever since. Furman says: "I told Scott I was emotionally stirred, but that it needs real work." When Sanders returned to New York, he in turn told Furman that he hoped they could work closely together in both the financial and creative development of the show. Before they had even finished their breakfast, Furman promised to raise half of the $11 million Sanders figured they needed. Furman himself made a seven-figure investment. If Sanders is chief executive, Furman is the president, and as such he has become as familiar a figure as Sanders: attending marketing meetings, dropping by rehearsals at the Broadway Theater after finishing his day job as vice-chairman of Jeffries & Co. (JEF ).

When Furman approached Broadway's traditional investors, though, some were wary of getting involved. The Color Purple challenged several long-held beliefs: First, that white audiences won't go to a show with an all-black cast and that African Americans usually don't go to Broadway at all. And second, that at a time when most successful musicals are lighthearted, a show with such serious themes didn't stand a chance. That it was unconventional was precisely what interested Furman in the show. "I told potential investors that it is a challenge," he says. "But the first something to break the rules is always exciting. The next something isn't."

So, as Furman says, there is more non-Broadway money in the show than usual. He won't say too much more than that, but Quincy Jones, who co-produced the movie and is a friend of Furman's, joined as a producer. Film producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein got involved, as did businessman Gary Winnick. Over the summer, Furman got some money from one of Australia's richest families, the Lowys, while traveling with them in the south of France. He and Sanders estimate that if every performance is filled to 75% capacity, with the audience paying full price, The Color Purple will recoup its investment in one year.

Then, when the show was already fully capitalized, Oprah called. Furman and Sanders scaled back some individual investments to accommodate Oprah's $1 million or so. Once they made the announcement about her involvement, they "were bombarded with people major and minor who wanted to get in," says Furman. "We told them all no."

TAKING CREATIVE RISKS In putting together his artistic team, Sanders chose to dispense with the received wisdom of the industry: Simply put, hire the big names. That decision, of course, has upped the ante. The show's writer, Marsha Norman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her play 'night, Mother. But the director has never been on Broadway before; the three composers come from the world of Los Angeles pop; the choreographer works in modern dance.

When it came to casting, Sanders worried that a recognizable actor, especially one from Hollywood, wouldn't be believable as Celie, whom he describes as a "wounded bird" in the beginning of the story. But Shug Avery, the blues singer whom Celie falls in love with, maybe. There were plenty of famous people who wanted those parts. He resisted, though, because he also came to believe that replacing a celebrity, who would inevitably sign on for a limited run, with someone unknown would put an unnecessary burden on a show that was already taxing enough. Better, he decided, to wait a couple of years into the show's life and then reinvigorate it with a star turn. So he filled the lead roles with actors who, while hugely talented, aren't "the insurance policy" some investors were looking for.

His inspiration in all of this was Thomas C. Schumacher, the head of Disney's theatrical division, who had made the unusual decision to hire an avant-garde director to put The Lion King on stage. "I was thinking about who wasn't obvious for the show, but instinctively I knew was right," says Sanders. "Plenty of people said I was crazy not to hire veterans of Broadway. 'If you're going to produce your first $11 million film, why wouldn't you get Martin Scorsese to direct it and Halle Berry to star in it?' When I felt insecure, I reminded myself about Tom."

Producers don't always involve themselves in the intricacies of the lyrics, the script, the set, the costumes. When they do, they can easily disrupt the artistic process. As with bosses anywhere, a producer's arrival sometimes signals, however unintentionally, that there is trouble. When faced with this management challenge, Sanders devised a simple solution: He kept showing up. He is around so often that no one freezes up anymore when they see him, says Felicia P. Fields, who plays Sofia. Sanders, she says, "is the man, he signs the check, but you can connect with him." He calls the star of the show, LaChanze, at home on Sunday afternoons to see how she's doing; she says he's the Big Pappa. He spoke to Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, who plays Shug and has never acted before, from an overseas flight to tell her how much he enjoyed her performance in a showcase for her record label. He has taken the writers out for ex pensive dinners when they needed to unwind, brought a great bottle of tequila to rehearsal when they needed a lift.

Along the way, Sanders eased up a bit as he grew more confident the show would come together. He asked a longtime friend and collaborator, Todd Johnson, who has been involved creatively with the show for four years, to be his liaison with the composers and writers so he could spend more time, as he says, "selling tickets." As Norman sees it: "Scott has learned to watch from the right distance. In the beginning he stated his opinions: 'Like that, hate that.' It shut us down. He has learned he can't tell writers the solution, but he can carefully define the problem. Not many producers can do this."

Sanders' approach was on display during a two-hour presentation in July by the set designer, John Lee Beatty, and director, Gary Griffin. This was the first time Sanders was seeing the many changes they had made since Atlanta and he had at least one concern: "Can we have a couple of 'wow' moments, where the audience feels like they're seeing a great Broadway musical?" he asked them. "Gary hates that I'm asking this. As a producer I want those Broadway moments. I just want you to think about it. I'm just throwing out a few ideas. I trust you."

MANAGING THE BRAND From the outset, Sanders recognized the responsibility of dealing with a story that has become a part of African American culture. As he says: "I use the word franchise very respectfully." Oprah's endorsement gives him more credibility.

One important issue that had come up during the summer was who they should approach to record the radio spots that still account for the bulk of Broadway advertising: Some of the staff at SpotCo., the agency Sanders had hired, argued for the traditional, anonymous white male voice of authority. Sanders was interested in an African American female voice. Problem solved.

After Oprah's arrival, the focus at weekly marketing meetings was on how to reach her viewers. The full cast would be singing two numbers on Oprah's show to be aired on Nov. 11. This gave Sanders a chance to convince a bigger audience than he ever could have that the music wasn't, as he says, "dirge-like," that the show wouldn't be depressing. In the early fall he had sent 500,000 direct-mail offers with a three-song CD to frequent theatergoers; now the cast would be singing to as many as 49 million, many of whom rarely see a Broadway show. But none of those present at SpotCo.'s office on Oct. 25 were sure how to gauge Oprah's impact on ticket sales. She can turn a book into a sensation. But a Broadway show is not a book: It's costlier, and for most theatergoers it requires travel. Sanders wanted to follow up the cast's appearance with a special online ticket offer for Oprah's audience. Would she announce the discount on the air? Not with a specific price. Should the offer appear on her Web site or theirs? Hers. Shouldn't there be ads in the suburban papers that week, since Oprah says her viewers don't necessarily read The New York Times? Absolutely.

Sanders now gets regular e-mails from Oprah, who told BusinessWeek that "being a part of Broadway has always been a secret dream of mine." At first, she had been particularly interested in the recording contract he had sealed with Angel Records, part of EMI Group, to record a cast album as well as two singles by big-name performers. Early on he had asked the composers for two things: an uplifting song that Celie could sing on, say, The Today Show; and a pop ballad for Celie and Shug that he could conceivably get on radio. He had gone back and forth with them about whether this was a good idea in a score of mostly gospel, jazz, and blues. Sanders decided it was, and recently he signed Patti LaBelle and Jill Scott to record the ballad. The second song Angel is interested in is The Color Purple itself, and Oprah, he says, is very keen to find the right artists for that.

Sanders is eager for Oprah's opinions about more than the marketing of the show, though. He asked her to come to New York for a preview, and on Friday, Nov. 4, she did. She walked through the front door five minutes before the curtain rose, surrounded by a six-person coterie, as the audience "went insane," Sanders says. After the show, they repaired to her suite at The Four Seasons, took off their shoes, drank champagne, and talked about the musical for two hours. Oprah, Sanders said, identified what he considered to still be a weakness: that the songs for Celie are not as strong as those for the supporting cast. At the end of the evening, she mentioned that she might come back the next weekend. "I told her: 'Please come as often as you like,"' says Sanders.

Sanders says he expects The Color Purple to open on Dec. 1 with advance ticket sales of about $5 million, a relatively modest amount. After that first performance, he is hosting a party at the New York Public Library. Oprah will be there. Alice Walker will be there. Quincy Jones will be there. Furman and Sanders have arranged for the Empire State Building to be lit in purple. The reviews will come out the next day. It will take a while before Sanders knows whether he has a smash on his hands or a flop. He has always said that the show would have to be discovered, Oprah or not. When it comes down to it, Sanders is still counting on word of mouth.

By Susan Berfield

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.