What Broadway tuners did Fantasia absolutely love before she was approached to star in ‘The Color Purple’?
“She had never seen a Broadway show or a musical or any theater in her entire life until we invited her to see ‘The Color Purple,'” says producer Scott Sanders. “We had her come in and sing and read, but it was a leap of faith for all of us.”
Sanders along with fellow producer Oprah Winfrey, director Gary Griffin and casting director Bernard Telsey all thought Fantasia was conceptually right to play Alice Walker’s Celie. “But oh my god, she was beyond my dreams.”
Of course, Fantasia Barrino had made her name and gained her fame as an “American Idol” winner, but she was not the first “Idol” to make it to Broadway. “Idol” alums Josh Strickland (“Tarzan”), Frenchie Davis (“Rent”), Diana DeGarmo (“Hairspray”) and Constantine Maroulis (“The Wedding Singer”) all preceded Fantasia to the Great White Way with their accompanying fans and at least initial box office. Not coincidentally, all these shows were cast by Telsey.
Casting from “American Idol” has turned into a habit for Telsey. It’s just another version of open calls, a free television open call that he doesn’t have to organize or run. “I religiously watch it and religiously go after the losers because the losers are free to do theater,” Telsey says. “Of course, now that changes with having Fantasia. It’s a new way of finding really great singers who aren’t necessarily theater-trained or acting-trained, but have a natural talent. I think ‘Idol’ is going to have an amazing and lasting impact on Broadway. It’s one of my favorite things.”
Since the tuner went into development 10 years ago, the philosophy behind casting “Purple” has never been to look for the obvious choices.
“We were going to let ‘The Color Purple’ be the star,” Sanders says. “We were just going to look for great talent. Then LaChanze came in … and she won the Tony for best actress for her portrayal of Celie in its opening year.”
LaChanze, of course, was legit trained and had been in the industry for a number of years. For her replacement, the concept was to go in a new direction. Was there someone from the music world who could bring a unique quality to the show? And how do you replace someone who has won a Tony?
“For me, what I hate about replacements is it’s not about trying to find someone better. It’s trying to find another person who can bring something else to the role,” Telsey says. “Of course, you’re going to put someone like Fantasia on the list. And then you say it’s never going to happen. She won ‘American Idol.’ Everyone looks down at theater,” Telsey says of the Hollywood crowd. “It’s the crap we always get when we go after these nontraditional people.”
Regardless, Sanders and Co. brought Fantasia to Broadway to see the show and have dinner afterward. “What we were all hoping was to tap into Fantasia’s personal story, that there might be a personal connection to the character of Celie,” Telsey recalls.
Fantasia reacted enthusiastically — she wanted to tell Celie’s story. But there were the obvious self-doubts about shouldering a Broadway show. Growing up in North Carolina, she had not been brought up on legit. She had never even acted in a movie.
When Fantasia returned home after seeing “The Color Purple,” she prayed about it, then called Sanders: “OK, Scott. If you believe in me, and Miss Oprah believes and everybody else believes — if you guys work with me, I can do this.”
Fantasia won over the critics completely. Variety’s David Rooney wrote: “To those of us immune to ‘American Idol’ mania, there was no reason to expect much from an untrained actress recruited from the TV talent contest to play the downtrodden but ultimately uplifted Celie. But Fantasia’s guileless stage presence, emotional immediacy and the parallel of her own adversity-to-triumph story makes her a surprisingly satisfying fit. … Fantasia gives Alice Walker’s story a vibrant human center.”
Telsey’s belief that Fantasia might channel her own story into Celie’s paid off. “Celie’s life, man, it is such a heavy role to play,” the actress says. “When I’m in her shoes, I’m going back somehow into my own life.”
Fantasia wowed. But in the beginning did the people behind “Purple” think she had the stamina to go the distance? “You hoped,” says Telsey, looking back. “Sure, we all believed in her. But did we know? Did any of us really know from watching her do a live song or two? No. Of course we didn’t know. You hoped.”
They gave Fantasia double the rehearsal time that would have been given a trained Broadway actress. Sanders remembers them all attending the first night, all holding their breaths and wondering, “Will she bump into a door or something? And she was wonderful. We thought there’s something really unique and special going on.”