Same-sex love story at the center of musical

On March 27, 2006, the gay cowboys of “Brokeback Mountain” road into the Marriott Marquis ballroom in Gotham to collect their feature-film kudo from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Much less ballyhooed on the evening’s agenda was the award for top legit event of the year.

Broadway’s wares are sold right outside the revolving front door of the Marquis hotel, so maybe familiarity breeds ennui for things live. That season, only one big uptown show managed to be blessed by the GLAAD Awards board for its positive portrayal of gays and lesbians.

Other theater noms went to Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway fare that had played a few weeks (if they were lucky) at tiny downtown theaters that had once known life as a green grocery or a sweatshop. Suffice to say that the big legit kid on the block that night, the new Oprah Winfrey-produced musical version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Color Purple,” lost to “Oedipus at Palm Springs,” which had been collectively penned by a group that called itself the Five Lesbian Brothers.

Outside of a piano bar, Off Broadway is as close as homosexuals ever get to playing to the choir. “The Color Purple,” on the other hand, is actually playing to church choirs and has entertained them for every night of its 105-week run (and counting) at the 1,761-seat Broadway Theater.

“Purple” producer Scott Sanders insists that he had no qualms about putting the same-sex love story at the center of the musical. Nearly a decade ago, when he and Walker first talked about turning her novel into a stage show, the subject of how to handle Shug and Celie emerged as a top priority. “And the thing I promised Alice Walker was my desire to tell the story of the novel,” Sanders says. “She wanted us to explore the women’s relationship more fully than it was done in the movie.”

But there was trepidation.

From the beginning, the show’s marketing team wanted to target black churches, and it’s no secret that a year before the “Purple” tuner opened (on Dec 1, 2005) more than a few African-American ministers had broken away from the Democratic Party over the issue of same-sex marriage.

Although GLAAD didn’t go all the way and give “Purple” its top legit honor, the show has a fan in the org’s prexy, Neil G. Giuliano, who calls it a “groundbreaking” show.

“Here we have two African-American female leads whose complex and poignant love affair unfolds in a successful, critically acclaimed mainstream Broadway musical,” Giuliano says. “Not only do these two women share an entire song, but their kiss is a central moment in the show.”

That song, “What About Love,” is the show’s recurring love theme and closes act one, which is sealed with a big kiss between the two women.

“Every time I see the show, I’m still shocked that the audience goes with us,” says “Purple” book writer Marsha Norman. “I still have the same reaction I did at that first preview in Atlanta, Georgia: ‘They’re going for this. They’re not going to get up and leave.’”

After watching Celie endure abuse from all corners, auds are just happy she has found love.

“For me, the audience’s reaction was especially moving,” Giuliano continues. “I felt the entire theater was completely in the moment, quietly cheering on Celie and Shug.”

In that regard, “The Color Purple” is a first. No other Broadway hit musical has ever featured a lesbian character as its romantic lead. Those lavender shadings have heretofore been reserved for supporting characters (“Rent”) or a bit player whose sexual orientation is mocked (“The Producers”).

Fans of the Walker novel will find the heroine’s sexual orientation just as pronounced in the musical version. The Steven Spielberg movie from 1988, however, muted the affair between Celie and Shug. There’s a movie kiss between Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery, but it’s not much of a kiss.

“Twenty years is an enormous period in the creative environment, especially these last 20 years,” says Peter Guber, an exec producer on the Spielberg film. “If you look at all the media, they are much more emboldened when it comes to stretching the envelope.”

Guber calls the tuner’s depiction of the same-sex romance a major achievement, even for a legit vehicle. “If you’re going to do a musical comedy, you can deal with the humor of it all,” he explains. “But this is a dramatic picture. Your target is smaller. It’s not something that’s funny. You have to hit that target of ‘I’m frightened, I’m scared, and I’m in love’ with incredibly great precision.”

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