Color Purple

John Lahr reviewed the Broadway production of The Color Purple in the December 12th issue of The New Yorker (Artificial Respiration). Because I have been working on the Luther Henderson biography (the man behind the music of Broadway shows such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Jelly’s Last Jam, and Play On, to name a few), I took particular note of Lahr’s comment regarding the music:

Under Gary Griffin’s direction, the show moves at speed but picks up no momentum. It has pace but no rhythm. There is something inert at its core, which has to do with the lyrics and music by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray, who have written pop songs but, as is all too evident, never assayed a Broadway show. Their songs illustrate, but don’t advance, the plot.

Lahr was not alone. Here’s an excerpt from Michael Feingold’s review (Prosaically ‘Purple’) in The Village Voice:

…the three songwriters, skilled professionals from the Hollywood pop scene, mostly display competence and craftsmanship rather than inspiration. One or two of the ensemble numbers built on traditional forms, refreshingly, break free of the standard pop conventions. But far too often you sit, watching dynamite performers give their all to a song, and wonder why the result doesn’t soar. Then the book takes over, and inexplicable events start rushing past again.

And Terry Teachout had this to say inThe Wall Street Journal (The Color Green):

I can’t say enough nasty things about the music, which consists of generic gospel, scrubbed-up blues and fake-fur jazz, all somewhat less memorable than the score to a made-for-TV movie. The lyrics are cloyingly faux-naïf, though I’ll be kind and cite only this stanza from the finale: “It take a grain of love/To make a mighty tree/Even the smallest voice/Can make a harmony.” Why does it not surprise me that one of the show’s songwriters is best known for having penned the theme to “Friends”?

Had Luther been alive and working on this show, I suspect the outcome would have been very different. In several interviews I have heard about Luther’s collaborative nature and how he approaches the music not as not an add-on or interlude, but as an integral part of a production. Here are snippets from two interviews, the first from Susan Birkenhead, lyricist for Jelly’s Last Jam:

…he took this complicated music and because he had worked in the theater for so much of his life, and he understood the dramatic needs of the music, and because he was a consummate musician who understood the complexities of that music, what he did, really, was not just arrange the music but almost recompose Morton’s music as a theatrical score…

Sheldon Epps, creator, writer and director of Play On, had this to say:

I was a huge admirer of his work on Jelly’s Last Jam and what I thought was an extremely difficult task, brilliantly executed in terms of Luther’s adapting that music to theater music and to theater songs. He was not given nearly enough credit for the brilliance with which he accomplished that task. I loved the show. I loved the way that Jelly’s music was used to tell that story, the way that music is adapted to the needs of choreography and staging and all of that, and in fact in addition to my overall admiration for his work, I think it was probably specifically the work that he did in adapting that music to the needs of the theater project that made him the one that I wanted to contact when I started to work on Play On….

Luther never approached it initially musically but always dramatically. When we were in the first rehearsal process, he never wanted anybody to sing a note of a song until I had been clear about what the scene was about, until the actors were clear about what was going on between the characters and what they were playing in the scene prior to where the song was going to be done, so that whatever adaptation of that song, whatever treatment of that music he created was the result of the dramatic needs rather than the musical needs. He then went on to arrange it in a way that was musically brilliant, that the inspiration for all of those arrangements was the story and the theatrical needs, not the musical needs.

I don’t know for a fact, but I imagine that the fault for the music in The Color Purple lies not with the songwriters, but more likely with the mandate they were given. Whether they have the expertise to have handled the job differently is not my point, rather I expect they were hired for their pop expertise, in hopes that the songs would become popular, sell lots of audio CDs, and thereby expand the revenue base for what is a very expensive production. The result of putting commercial concerns above artistic ones may yield financial success, but is unlikely to garner any critical acclaim.