The Color Oprah

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Felicia P. Fields as Sofia and LaChanze as Celie in Broadway's The Color Purple


"I have never had a moment's feud with you!" purred Oprah Winfrey on last night's semi-squirmy love-in with David Letterman. No, of course not. Except that, for the last 16 years, the queen of daytime talk had refused to be a guest of the once-hippest guy on late-night talk because he had made her feel demeaned when she did appear back in the 80s, then took her name in vain, oh, about a thousand times in subsequent shows. Not to mention, though of course they both did last night, the "Oprah... Uma..." fiasco the year Letterman hosted the Academy Awards.

Winfrey, in New York for the opening of her Broadway musical The Color Purple, seemed apprehensive through most of the Letterman stint. He'd ask a reverent question, she'd laser him a suspicious look, waiting for the zinger. Oprah needn't have worried. Like Nelson, the bully on The Simpsons who melted when Marge showed him a little affection, Dave has been known to puddle in the presence of the more august butts of his jokes. Recall that Hillary Clinton, the victim of several years of merciless nightly barbs about her and her husband, got the caress of sycophancy when she finally came on The Late Show.

Last night was no different. Face to face with the most admired woman in America, Dave was ceaselessly devotional, lobbing questions about Oprah's many good works, all but nominating her for the Nobel Peace Prize and any other she might fancy. At the end of her stint, he took her by the hand — I'm saying the Dark Lord of Cool held Oprah's hand, anyone's hand, for two solid minutes — and escorted her down the block to the Broadway Theatre, for The Color Purple's opening night, as gawkers behind police barriers cheered the lovely couple. Thus concluded the most highly hyped detente since Sadat and Begin made nice at Camp David in '78. Next week on The Late Show: Cher and Richard Simmons get married, and Dave gives away both brides.

I had thought Winfrey might have come on Letterman to plug the musical (one number from which Dave had showcased two weeks ago). Instead, she barely alluded to it. This was strange, since her tub-thumping on her own program a while back generated a $2-million box office blitz the next day. Maybe she thinks she's done her bit for now, in bringing the word of this all-black-cast show to potential Broadway visitors, especially the African-American middle class that hasn't always had reason to spend a couple hundred dollars on an evening's entertainment.

If The Color Purple does bring significant numbers of blacks to Broadway, that'd be great. I had a similar hope for the Desi Indian audience when the A.R. Rahman Bollywood musical Bombay Dreams opened at the same theater early last year. Eight money-draining months later, it closed. Mind you, Bombay Dreams didn't have The Color Purple's $10 million advance, which should be enough to let this adaptation of the Alice Walker novel ride out the mostly mixed reviews it received today. Critics wanted to be respectful yet say that this mixture of melodrama and pop music was just an elevated soap Oprah.


Oprah is, no question, the star of the show; her name heads the crowded list of producers (15 individuals, three organizations), and on the marquee a banner proclaims: Oprah Winfrey Presents. She's the name journalists use to get readers' attention, as I have here. She also, you recall, played the earth-mothery Sofia in Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie version of The Color Purple. And there's a character in the book, film and show called Harpo, which as all know is Oprah spelled backward and the name of her production company.

But once you get inside the theater, don't expect this musical to be a Grand Ole Oprah. She's not in the show; she didn't write the book (that's by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman) or the score (by Brenda Russell, Allie Willis and Stephen Bray, all Broadway newcomers); she didn't direct (Gary Griffin did). Nor is she the producer who nourished the show through hears of false starts and rewrites; Scott Sanders deserves that credit. Oprah's job has been to promote persuasively for a musical she wants the world to love.

And, not speaking for the world, I mostly did love it. The Color Purple takes the seriousness of purpose that marked the signature musicals of the 70s, 80s and 90s (your Evita, your Les Miz, your Passion) and hitches it to the propulsive narrative zip of this decade's signature musical comedies (The Producers and its zany progeny). It's an epic, largely tragic tale that rarely dawdles or meanders. Terrible things happen: incest, abduction, the dankest, most intimate forms of betrayal. Yet they are presented with so much energy, in the narrative and the performances, that the effect can be exhilarating.

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