Friday, May 13, 2011

Theater feature: 'Color Purple' director always believed in story's power

A scene from the original production of The Color Purple.
(Photo by Paul Kolnik)

By Hap Erstein

Eight-time Jefferson Award-winning director Gary Griffin made his Broadway debut six years ago with the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s beloved epistolary novel,‭ ‬The Color Purple,‭ ‬a runaway hit now on its second national tour,‭ ‬completing a week’s run at the Kravis Center on Sunday.

Although this story of Celie,‭ ‬a young black girl raped and impregnated by her father and separated from her sister,‭ ‬had already been turned into a‭ ‬1985‭ ‬Oscar-nominated film by Steven Spielberg,‭ ‬to Griffin the appeal was the original material.

The attraction,‭ ‬he says,‭ “‬was Alice’s book and the fact that I knew we were going to go into territory that would be fresh and original.‭ ‬We would have to.‭ ‬If you’re going to make a musical of‭ ‬‘The Color Purple,‭’‬ you’re going to have to take a fresh,‭ ‬original approach with song and dance and theatrical choices.‭”

By the time Griffin joined the project,‭ ‬playwright Regina Taylor‭ (‬Crowns‭) ‬was writing the script,‭ ‬but it was not meshing with the work of pop composers Brenda Russell,‭ ‬Allee Willis and Stephen Bray,‭ ‬who would be making their musical theater debuts.‭

“I think their visions were different and I think we had to look at which one to continue with,‭” ‬says Griffin.‭ “‬You do that all the time when creating shows.‭ ‬You have choices and you have to decide which route to take.‭ ‬So the producers and I had to say that it was better to change that role in the team,‭ ‬rather than spending our time getting them to write the same show.‭”

So out went Taylor and in came Marsha Norman,‭ ‬Tony-winning adapter of‭ ‬The Secret Garden.

As she explains,‭ “‬I’m from Kentucky,‭ ‬I’m a woman,‭ ‬a writer who is able to live in the commercial world but also in the serious world.‭ ‬I want to entertain,‭ ‬but with ideas and emotions.‭ ‬I always felt that‭ ‬‘The Color Purple‭’‬ was not this terrible,‭ ‬dire tragedy,‭ ‬but this story of how this girl survives,‭ ‬stronger for it all.

‭“‬In the book,‭ (‬Celie’s‭) ‬a pretty passive character for a long time,‭ ‬so that had to change.‭ ‬She had to grow before our eyes and had to end up a different person by the end of the show.‭”

Norman never doubted that this story could be turned into a musical.‭ “‬The language of the novel was actually quite musical,‭” ‬she says.‭ “‬When the emotions run as high as they do in this story,‭ ‬that‘s when you have a musical,‭ ‬I’d say.‭”

In addition to making Celie a more active character,‭ ‬Norman’s other main chore was deciding what was expendable from the lengthy novel.‭

“Well,‭ ‬how to tell‭ ‬40‭ ‬years worth of story in an evening,‭ ‬that ultimately is the main challenge,‭” ‬she says.‭ “‬One of the things we had to figure out was how to deal with white people.‭ ‬And our ultimate solution was to cut them out.‭ ‬There’s the mayor’s wife and the mayor and the African colonials,‭ ‬we had to come to grips with the fact that it’s not about them.‭ ‬They always get to be onstage.‭ ‬This time,‭ ‬they don’t.‭”

And she had to determine what she needed that wasn’t there already.‭ “‬We also added in the community,‭ ‬this great vibrant world where people are watching each other all the time and looking out for each other,‭ ‬keeping track of who’s doing what to whom,‭” ‬says Norman.‭ “‬We added those church women who are like a Greek chorus,‭ ‬as a way of commenting,‭ ‬talking,‭ ‬gossiping,‭ ‬in a most classical way.‭”

The show that eventually emerged,‭ ‬while necessarily dramatic and intense,‭ ‬has a through line of love.‭ “‬I tried to be sure that everything had a universal core,‭ ‬that the characters were all acting out of love,‭” ‬Griffin says.‭ “‬Even the darkest,‭ ‬most scary scenes have to do with love or not getting love.‭”

Unlike many,‭ ‬Griffin is not critical of Spielberg’s film and its well-polished visuals.‭ “‬I think he took a very respectful view of the characters.‭ ‬He understood how to get that story to an audience that probably wouldn’t see it otherwise.‭

“It’s a beloved story and it should be beloved.‭ ‬And I think everybody has a feeling about how they want it expressed.‭ ‬I know there are people who wish the musical were more like the movie,‭” ‬Griffin says.‭ “‬And so it was a balancing act all the time,‭ ‬of being sure the audience understood the impact of what was going on,‭ ‬but pointing them towards the resilience of the characters to get them to the next moment.‭”

The show breaks from the images of the movie in its beginning moments.‭ “‬It opens with a musical montage that does everything that a musical’s opening number should do,‭” ‬says Griffin.‭ “‬It tells you why it’s a musical,‭ ‬it gives you an introduction to the characters,‭ ‬it gives you a taste for the kind of score that you’re going to hear,‭ ‬and propels you into the world of the piece.‭”

As the musical evolved,‭ ‬Pulitzer Prize-winner Walker was on the scene,‭ ‬but she never pulled rank about the way her story was being retold.‭ “‬She was fantastic,‭” ‬says Griffin.‭ “‬She would respond occasionally to things she would see that she questioned,‭ ‬but she was never demanding of‭ ‘‬this must change.‭’ ‬She liked the musical a lot so she was nothing but helpful and supportive.‭”

Also instrumental in the show gaining credibility was a producer who came on the scene‭ ‬--‭ ‬Oprah Winfrey.

‭“‬Clearly the stamp of approval for whatever they make in America is Oprah,‭” ‬says Norman.‭ “‬But the fact is that this story meant so much to her.‭ ‬When she did the movie,‭ ‬she wasn’t famous enough to get on the poster.‭ ‬She feels very strongly that that is her story,‭ ‬at least emotionally.‭ ‬As does much of the audience by the end of it.‭”

The show opened in Atlanta in the summer of‭ ‬2004‭ ‬and was immediately embraced by audiences,‭ ‬but Griffin knew it was a long way from being ready for Broadway.

‭“‬It needed clarification and focus.‭ ‬It needed to do its job with more power,‭ ‬to be more assertive,‭” ‬he says,‭ ‬scoffing at the suggestion that the show was ever in trouble.‭ “‬I made adjustments and worked on the show and experimented with different approaches to the scenes and the show evolved over time.‭ ‬I’ve been around troubled out-of-town tryouts and this really wasn’t one of them.‭ ‬I think that only happens when people panic.‭”

The Color Purple opened on Broadway on Dec.‭ ‬1,‭ ‬2005,‭ ‬to mixed responses.‭ “‬I think the pure musical theater audience was challenged by it because it was a score written by pop writers.‭ ‬Some people had issues with that,‭ ‬which we could do nothing about,‭” ‬Griffin concedes.‭ “‬But there were a lot of people who really understood it and got it,‭ ‬who came in skeptical and were surprised at how affecting it was.‭”

The show ran a little over two years in New York,‭ ‬and has been touring the country,‭ ‬drawing standing ovations ever since.‭ ‬Asked what he thinks the show taps into,‭ ‬Griffin says,‭ “‬It’s the kind of church we want to go to.‭ ‬If you love church already,‭ ‬you’re gonna love it.‭ ‬If you don’t think you love church,‭ ‬this might change your mind.‭ ‬Because in church,‭ ‬a lot of time,‭ ‬we go and we sing and we hear a great story.‭

“And if the story is told well,‭ ‬it helps us figure out the problems we have in our lives.‭ ‬Then we can come to this place together and celebrate it,‭ ‬celebrate our struggles,‭” ‬he said.‭

“I think that’s why it’s great.‭ ‬It’s a good visit to a church.‭”

THE COLOR PURPLE,‭ ‬Kravis Center,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West‭ ‬Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25‭ ‬and up.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬832-7469‭ ‬or‭ ‬(800‭) ‬572-8471.‭

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