A short take on responses to a novel-turned-musical.
Episode by Carmin Wong
Read by Kassandra Timm
Originally published as an epistolary novel by Alice Walker, in 1982, The Color Purple continues to reach new generations and wider audiences with its adaptations from book, to film, to stage.
Its world-wide recognition is evidence of Walker’s timeless yet timely contribution to Black literary culture. A Broadway musical debut, in 2005. A Broadway musical revival, in 2015. And several tours. For nearly four decades, The Color Purple has attracted prestigious book awards, Oscar nominations, and Tony Awards.
But what can be said of The Color Purple’s reception from a novel to a musical performance?
You’re listening to Remarkable Receptions – a podcast about popular and critical responses to African American novels.
The 1985 film adaption of The Color Purple by Steven Spielberg, garnered new attention, with folks today still reveling in its dialogue.
In 2005, The Color Purple: The Musical debuted at the Broadway Theater, and accumulated 11 Tony award nominations. The musical was co-produced by Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, and Scott Sanders, who had been working on the project for over a decade.
A musical score comprised of African American musical genres relevant during the novel’s time period supported the narrative arc from Walker’s book.
Despite the novel’s success as a film, Walker was not, at first, convinced her novel would serve the Broadway arena.
This production embraced musical numbers infused with blues, jazz, and other genres. It inserted original ballads that spoke to the devotion of Celie, essence of Sofia, and quintessential character of Shug Avery. The musical included librettos that picked up on the intimacies of each character’s life and desires in ways that Walker felt Spielberg’s film excluded. All the while, the musical displayed dimensions of Black women, Black spirituality, and the complexities of African American life.
The Color Purple musical received glowing reviews. Even Walker, who attended previews of the production at Alliance Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, was delighted after watching it.
After its three-year run, the Broadway debut amounted to numerous national tours, a limited London production, and later resurfaced as a Broadway revival from 2015-2017. The Color Purple’s forthcoming 2023 film revival, adapted from the 2005 Broadway musical, suggests its impact is as strong as ever.
So, what happens when a story as powerful and endearing as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple’s journeys off the page? Well, it finds new ways of sitting with us—older and newer generations. The music, the motion, and Walker’s remarkable words.
In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece (2021) by Salamishah Tillet
This episode was written by Carmin Wong. The episode was edited by Elizabeth Cali and Howard Rambsy II.
This podcast, Remarkable Receptions, is part of the Black Literature Network, a joint project from African American literary studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas. The project was made possible by the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. For more information, visit blacklitnetwork.org.