This show is a particularly frustrating one, as it was based on a classic novel and film that should have made a wonderful musical. But while there are those who enjoyed the show, the nearly unanimous verdict at the time was that it fell far short of its source material.
Firstly, the show was simply unwilling to expand its running time to accommodate the novel’s rich narrative, or to grapple with the sheer brutal intensity of the original source. The famous film version, fine and touching as it was, already abbreviated and softened the original novel’s relentlessly bleak and honest narrative, and the musical takes that process much further, cramming what remains of the story into a rushed book that tries to fit too much plot into too little stage time and loses most of the novel and film’s emotional impact.
In addition, the score fails to do justice to the story’s dramatic possibilities. Written by a trio of songwriters who all came from a pop background (including Brenda “Piano in the Dark” Russell), it does feature a few enjoyable numbers in a pop vein, such as the feisty “Hell No”, or the sweet duet “What About Love?”, or the lovely title song. But a show with a plot this dark and dire requires a score with real emotional weight, and the songwriters here are completely at a loss when musicalizing scenes of parental rape or spousal abuse.
For example, the generic gospel song that opens the show, “Mysterious Ways”, is a completely inadequate opening for this kind of story, far too empty and clichéd to set the tone properly or indeed do anything but provide a cheap burst of uptempo energy. Much of the material is simply goofy, such as a series of choruses for a trio of gossips that sound like a bad parody of The Music Man, or the embarrassing “Big Dog”, or the unfunny comedy duet “Any Little Thing”. There’s even an extended sequence at the beginning of Act Two that rips off The Lion King with faux-African chanting. And the climactic song of triumph for Celie, “I’m Here”, comes off as a generic power ballad and completely fails to do justice to the end of her emotional journey.
The real tragedy is that the story of the novel and film is one of the great works of fiction of our time, powerful and inspirational, and it could have made a magnificent musical if given a book and score of sufficient weight and quality to do justice to its seriousness. What they should have done is hired Flaherty and Ahrens, who had already proved they could handle similar material with Ragtime, and who would do a similar musical the same year, Dessa Rose, that, while not entirely successful, was observed by many critics to have the dramatic spark The Color Purple lacked. But Oprah Winfrey, who had played a supporting role in the movie and who masterminded the musical’s production, was determined that the entire creative team be Black for symbolic reasons. And since there were no Black composers of any note working on Broadway at the time, she hired three Pop songwriters with no experience writing for the theater, and the rest is history.
An extremely strong revival cast and the current political climate on Broadway led to a revival of this show ten years later being much better received than the original production. But this is still a mediocre and terribly disappointing show, continually relying on dynamic performers to communicate the drama that the composition fails to deliver, and its initial reception was far more deserved that the one given to its latest production. And when the current craze for political correctness passes, I imagine the show’s seeming vindication by history will fade with it, because while the show may be modestly entertaining in its way, no-one going into this show with an unbiased viewpoint and any familiarity with the source material could deny how short it falls of its illustrious source.