‘Purple’ turns to lavender on B’way

Prod'n births a first with a lesbian character carrying the tuner

Last year, “Brokeback Mountain” opened Dec. 9 and was immediately proclaimed a groundbreaking film. For those moviegoers who’d already seen “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (1971) or “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985) or “My Own Private Idaho” (1991) or “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999), there had to be much scratching of the head: Exactly what new turf was being excavated with the much-lauded gay-cowboy romance?

One week prior to the “Brokeback” preem, “The Color Purple” opened on Broadway with much less press ballyhoo despite its birth of a true first: Alice Walker’s abused and abandoned Celie became the first lesbian character to carry a big-budget Broadway musical on her slender, yet formidable, shoulders.

The songwriting team of Stephen Bray, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis make their Broadway debut with “Purple,” and the show’s groundbreaking status leaves them more than a little stunned.

“It’s shocking to me,” says Willis. “I certainly thought that the theater was a much more liberal place than the movies, and there have been a zillion gay-theme movies.”

Despite its rep as the Great Gay Art Form, Broadway tuners have not been exactly hospitable to homosexual characters as headliners. Among the very few tuners with lavender leads are “Cabaret,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Falsettos” and “The Boy From Oz,” with the jury still out on Bobby in “Company.”

Gay guys are also found as secondary characters in “A Chorus Line” and “Avenue Q,” with lesbians surfacing only as supporting couples in “Falsettos” and “Rent,” give or take a few other shows.

“There has been a distrust of the audience,” says “Purple” book writer Marsha Norman, who with her Pulitzer Prize (” ‘night Mother”) is the only legit vet on the show’s creative team. “There has always been the feeling that audiences wouldn’t go for a gay relationship onstage, so we better make one of the characters a woman.” (In fact, the creators of the seminal “Gypsy” went the other way and turned the lesbian lover of the real-life Mama Rose into the very harried Herbie.)

The decision to feature the same-sex love affair in “Purple” was actually set before any of the four creatives signed on. “Eight years ago, Alice Walker and I specifically talked about Shug and Celie,” says lead producer Scott Sanders, “and the thing I promised her was my desire to tell the story of the novel. She wanted us to explore the women’s relationship more fully than it was done in the movie.”

The creative team didn’t stint on that assignment: Act One concludes with a big kiss for Shug and Celie, followed by a flat-out, old-fashioned love duet entitled “What About Love.” From there, a solo spot lights up the heroine’s glowing face. And blackout.

Director Gary Griffin insists that the love duet is “key” to the story. “If we didn’t see Celie and Shug become lovers, it wouldn’t be possible to go to the place Celie needed to go to become her own person,” he says.

Russell has been surprised how many in the audience don’t know the story. She recalls one intermission confab that took place just minutes after Celie and Shug’s kiss. “That didn’t happen in the movie!” was the topic of conversation.

Certainly not with the same passion. “Clearly when Steven Spielberg did the movie, he thought the audience wouldn’t go for this,” says Norman. “He toned down all the sexuality. But it is a different world now. The general audience sees that love is love and it is to be valued above all else no matter where it shows up. That’s the difference.”

From its first previews in Atlanta, in autumn 2004, to its current Broadway run, Celie and Shug’s kiss has never failed to provoke a few ohs and ahs. One Atlanta perf, however, produced a somewhat more boisterous reaction. “It was a special performance for high school students,” Willis recalls. “When the kids came, it wasn’t just one or two gasps, it was hundreds of kids hooting.”

But they quickly settled into the song, and “What About Love” earned its ovation. “Now, that’s changing an attitude in kids, who may be struggling with these issues themselves, and there were no naysayers by the end of the song with that group,” Willis claims.

Sanders insists that investors did not object to the lesbian love story. Of more concern, it seems, was the show’s lack of a big star. “A lot of potential investors wanted to know: Where is the bankable insurance policy?” he recalls.

Instead, Sanders went with talent and cast LaChanze, who had headlined “Once on This Island” 15 years earlier. It would have been bad casting to put a bigger name in the lead role. “It would be wrong for Celie to walk out and the entire audience gives her an ovation,” says Sanders. “She needs to be a broken bird at that point.”

The gamble paid off. In fall 2004, “Purple” broke a 36-year-old box office record at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta.

On Broadway, the show boasted a respectable $5 million advance on its first day of previews. A month later, when it opened Dec. 1, the advance had jumped to a plump $10 million, and it now hovers at a spectacular $22 million, with the show grossing around $1 million a week — good enough to put it in the top four or five musicals — and clearing at least $400,000 over its weekly nut. The show should pay back its $11 million cost sometime this summer.

“Do you know our No. 1 category of group sales?” asks Sanders. “Churches and choirs.”

Now that’s groundbreaking.