Oprah heats branding iron

They don't need her money, but producers hope media mogul can bring hype to B'way

Florenz Ziegfeld. George Abbott. David Merrick. And now: Oprah Winfrey.

With the announcement Sept. 26 that Winfrey signed on to make her Broadway producing debut on the tuner “The Color Purple,” the media titan joined an increasingly rare breed of producers whose names appear alone above the title in the Playbill. And on the theater marquee.

But what does that mean for a show that was already fully capitalized by a full slate of producers when she came aboard? And who exactly are the audiences Winfrey will sway into coming to the show?

In the 21st century, a name over the title doesn’t mean what it used to. Unlike the top-billed impresarios of the past, Winfrey is not the lone producer of “Color Purple”; she’s one of 16 individuals and orgs listed. She’s not even the lead — that would be Scott Sanders, who’s shepherded the project for eight years.

Winfrey is a funder who’s kicked in a reported $1 million to the $10 million-plus musical, just months before its Dec. 1 opening night. More than her mil, she’s contributing the sort of serious selling power that’s unprecedented on Broadway.

“We’re viewing this as great icing on the cake,” Sanders says. “We’re rebranding the way we’re marketing the show.”

And he does mean brand. The rubric “Oprah Winfrey presents,” under which “The Color Purple” will appear, already endorses a line of TV movies. The most recent of these, the Halle Berry starrer “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” pulled in a hefty 21 share of adults 18-49 when it aired in March.

Winfrey has committed to feature “Purple” on her long-running talk show, which averaged almost 9 million viewers per episode last season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

She could also conceivably push “Purple” in O, the Oprah Magazine, which boasts 2.6 million readers. While she’s at it, maybe she’ll feature Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning 1982 novel as a monthly pick for her newly rehabilitated, high-profile book club. In its heyday in 1999, the club could sell 1.5 million copies of an Oprah title in bookstores, according to Publishers Weekly.

Plus, she’s been associated with the story for 20 years. One of her first big breaks came in the 1985 Steven Spielberg movie version.

“Oprah is someone who has the twin towers of credibility and visibility,” says Jed Bernstein, prexy of the League of American Theaters and Producers. “She’ll help shine a spotlight on the show, and on the Broadway overall.”

“Her name adds to the panache of any project,” says Scott Mallalieu, prexy of Group Sales Box Office. He also says that the day the news broke, he immediately saw a jump in the number of orders and requests for info about “Purple.”

At first blush, it seems that Winfrey would attract that elusive, black middle-class audience that doesn’t go to most Broadway shows, but that turned out in droves to see Sean Combs in “A Raisin in the Sun.”

But really, that demo would be gravy. Winfrey’s fan base is even broader: Of that average of 9 million viewers last season, Nielsen reports that only about 17% are African-American.

Winfrey described herself as “Miss Mainstream” to Sanders, an acknowledgment that her followers comprise a broad swath of the nation that listens when she speaks. Many of these are the tourists who, when they come to New York to see a Broadway show, will gravitate to Winfrey’s recommendation the same way they would in a bookstore or on a television dial.

That’s why Sanders, whom Winfrey contacted first about investing, asked her to put her name over the title, and why the investors of the fully capitalized production carved out some room for her on the show.

Which, actually, had solid prospects before she came aboard. Under the recognizable title is a score by Grammy winners Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray and a book by Pulitzer-winner Marsha Norman (“‘night, Mother”). In the year since the tryout run in Atlanta, creatives have beefed up the storytelling over nine months of work and a four-week New York workshop in June.

After all, a big-name producer isn’t enough to guarantee a hit. Just ask Rosie O’Donnell about the ill-fated “Taboo.”

“The show still needs to be a wonderful show,” says Nancy Coyne, one of the heads of the Broadway marketing firm Serino Coyne, which is not involved in “Purple.” “But in terms of what happens after that, it has one of the biggest assets a Broadway musical has ever had.”

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