Alice Walker’s 1983 novel The Color Purple is now a Broadway musical. The New York Times gave it a respectful but unenthusiastic review this morning, praising the lush pleasures of the production but complaining that the plot was lost in the frenetic pace.
I’ve heard enough about this production to discern that it is aiming to be a feel-good blockbuster (indeed, the finances of the Broadway musical biz mandates that virtually every new production must spend high and aim for the family/tourist market), and as such I suspect it is not an adaptation of the Alice Walker novel, as it claims to be, but rather an adaptation of Steven Speilberg’s warm-hearted but sappy movie version of the Alice Walker novel.
What history may fail to record is that, once upon a time, The Color Purple was seen as a serious, searing literary work. Alice Walker’s book won a Pulitzer prize, and in the early 80’s she was welcomed by the literary community as a groundbreaking new writer with a distinct style and great gifts. The novel was written in the authentic voice of a semi-literate abused child of the American south, and presented tough, painful scenes of her victimization and eventual breakthroughs.
But Alice Walker never seemed to want to join the literary pantheon, and to her credit has never pandered to critics in any forum. She is still the subject of hero worship among many readers, but has willfully fallen off (Dave Chappelle style) the superstar bandwagon. It’s ironic that, even as the author admirably eschews any form of commercial exploitation, her signature book is today being marketed alongside other well-funded Broadway family entertainments like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mamma Mia. Maybe this production will find an audience and run for years. Maybe it’ll close in two weeks. Either way, I don’t think I’ll be dropping by.