In the late 1990's, Scott Sanders set out on a path to turn Alice Walker's beloved novel The Color Purple into a Broadway musical. Sanders felt the book was a story with music in its soul, and Celie's journey was a universal tale of triumph and hope, ready for another interpretation. Lucky for him, an opportunity presented itself. Sanders, then president of Mandalay Television, worked side-by-side with Peter Guber, Mandalay's founder and chairman, and one of the producers of Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-nominated film version of The Color Purple.
It was through this relationship that Sanders was introduced to Alice Walker. Walker originally expressed reticence about revisiting the story—especially on the Broadway stage. But, after the pair took a trip to New York to see some shows, she began to see how her classic novel would be easily adapted for the stage. Armed with Walker's blessing, Sanders approached Warner Bros. and began a two-year process of negotiating the rights to the story. Warner agreed to sign-off if Steven Spielberg also gave his okay, which he did.
The next step for Sanders was to find composers and lyricists to write a musical score that was both theatrical and encompassed the great black musical genres that were prevalent in the American South during the 40-year period in which the story takes place (1909–1949). For nearly two years he searched before finding Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray and Allee Willis. A month after their first meeting, Russell, Bray and Willis presented Sanders with two songs, "Shug Avery's Comin' To Town" and a ballad for the main character, Celie. To his delight, Sanders found the sound he was looking for and the team started writing.
In 2003, Sanders met with Chicago-based director Gary Griffin, a director with clean staging and strong focus on storytelling. Griffin signed on. Sanders and his producer Todd Johnson then met with Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning writer Marsha Norman. After she listened to some of the songs written thus far and expressed her enthusiasm and ideas, it was clear that she shared a similar vision with the rest of the creatives and Norman joined as the new book writer. The next hurdle was finding an actress who could both sing and handle the wide range of acting requirements necessary to play the lead role of Celie. In the audition process, producers found their woman. LaChanze, who had starred in numerous Broadway performances, wowed the team in her audition and was brought on board.
Putting it all together In February 2004, a reading of the book and score was staged in New York and the team started their first round of changes. They then mounted plans for a regional production of the work in order to get the show in front of a live audience, an important step in getting valuable feedback.
Soon, a deal was struck with the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, only 30 miles from where the story of The Color Purple is set. The month-long preview broke the Alliance Theatre's 36-year box-office record playing to sold-out audiences!
Through the experience, Sanders and the creative team learned that the play had a lot of heart, was entertaining and lended itself beautifully to a musical stage adaptation. They also learned they had more work to do before heading to Broadway.
In 2005, theater producer and investment banker Roy Furman came on board as a producer and shortly thereafter, the capital was fully in place. Next, legendary music producer Quincy Jones signed on as did Oprah Winfrey. On November 1, 2005 The Color Purple: The Musical began preview performances at the Broadway Theatre in New York City.