Detroit native Allee Willis had never written music for Broadway before, and the pop songwriter (“Boogie Wonderland” and “September” for Earth, Wind & Fire) didn’t even like musicals. But she didn’t let any of that stop her.
“There was no way I would turn down the gig to write “The Color Purple,” Willis said. The Mumford High School grad was speaking from her Los Angeles house before hopping a plane to come home to Detroit, where “The Color Purple” runs Tuesday through Nov. 12 at the Fisher Theatre.
Willis, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray composed the music to Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Celie, a black woman who manages to overcome a life of abuse and poverty in the South in the early 20th century.
“The show is 85-percent music,” Willis said. “None of us (composers) come from theater. So we spent about a year doing nothing but listening to every soundtrack, seeing every musical we could — really studying up. Over the next four years, every single day we just lived and breathed ‘The Color Purple.’ ”
There was a steep learning curve in writing for a Broadway musical, Willis said. The audience, she explained, has expectations about the meaning of songs based upon where they occur in the musical.
“You have to really know — this is the time where the first song has to establish what the whole environment is like. The second song has to establish what the lead character’s journey is. There’s a place for a novelty song, and then the ‘eleven o’clock song,’ that’s the most important one. There are certain goals, whereas in pop songwriting you have none of those rules.”
And forget any “near” rhymes, as you may hear in pop/rock or hip-hop.
“You’ll get slaughtered by the critics if you do that,” Willis said, laughing. “There was definitely a period of adjustment, but all three of us would say we became better songwriters as a result of working that way.”
The musical version of “The Color Purple” had its first run in 2005-2008, but it was a revamped, 2015 revival directed by John Doyle that really caught fire, winning two Tonys (including best musical revival) and now, touring North America.
Willis met Doyle during the original run of the musical, and he told her how much he loved the musical. When he directed a revival in London later and Willis saw it, she was amazed.
“I thought, someone really understood what we wrote,” Willis said. “He just stripped everything away so that all you had were music, lyrics, character, story. And just one set, it never changed.”
While it was exciting to see their story turned into a big Broadway musical the first time around, with innumerable costume changes, Willis said this revival is closer to their intent.
Walker’s story is about Celie and her attempts to protect her younger sister, Nettie, from their abusive stepfather. Celie had been forced to give up her two children, and then loses Nettie, as well, when she has to run away. Celie is married off to Mister, an angry man who also abuses her, and is in love with the glamorous singer Shug Avery, who’s gone off to Memphis. But ironically it’s Shug, who has a memorable number in the local juke joint (run by Harpo), “Push Da Button,” who helps Celie heal with loving attention and advice.
Adrianna Hicks of Texas (by way of the University of Oklahoma) was a “swing” and understudy to all but two of the female roles during “The Color Purple” revival’s Broadway run, and she is now playing the lead role of Celie in the touring company. She wants people to understand how universal Celie’s story is, despite its very specific setting.
“This definitely a human piece, which makes it so wonderful, and so timeless,” Hicks said by phone from Des Moines, Iowa, where the musical played last week. “We could be at any time and this story could relate to any individual, the hard things in life the insecurities and other touchy subjects as well. In the long run, everybody is affected. Black or white, male or female, it’s a human experience.”
Reviewers have pointed out that Hicks’ harmonizing with N’Jameh Camara, the actress who plays her sister, Nettie, are some of the musical’s most beautiful moments. Some of Hicks’ own favorite scenes are when Harpo’s wife, Sofia, declares in song that “Hell No,” she won’t allow a man to abuse her.
“Finally, somebody is encouraging this woman (Celie), somebody’s giving her hope,” Hicks said. “And whenever Celie blossoms and comes out and tells Mister off, and speaks her mind for the first time in the show, that’s definitely a highlight. There’s also a great response whenever Shug Avery is singing to Celie, saying she’s too beautiful for words. At that point, we already have people weeping in the audience.”
Willis has her own inspirational message to convey. She isn’t a trained musician, and yet she has written hit songs and now, a hit musical.
“I’m untrained in everything I do, and I do a lot more than music,” said Willis, a graduate of Mumford High School. “But I grew up in that environment, in Detroit (in the ’50s and ’60s), where anything was possible, it was all pointing to the future. Everything was colorful, happy, and then you had Motown! The music was so mind-blowing, in a city with its own soundtrack. How do you write the music, and you don’t know how? There’s no question. All I ever say is, I grew up in Detroit.”
Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com
‘The Color Purple’
3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
8 p.m. Tuesday-Nov. 11; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12; 2 p.m. matinees Nov. 11-12
Note: On Tuesday, there will be a special pre-show Q&A at 7 p.m. at the theater with Allee Willis and castmember and Detroit native Angela Birchett; $5 from every full-priced ticket sold that night will benefit the Mosaic Youth Theatre.
Based upon the novel by Alice Walker. Book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Directed by John Doyle.
broadwayindetroit.com. Charge by phone: (800) 982-2787