Marsha Norman on “The Color Purple”

While not involved in The Rep’s production of the “The Color Purple," she fashioned the dramatic spine the company is exploring.

By - Sep 19th, 2014 03:12 pm
Marsha Norman.

Marsha Norman.

It started with “Getting Out,” which I saw in its Louisville debut in 1978 with a memorable actress, the late Susan Kingsley. There, I admired an unknown Kentucky playwright who rose to later Broadway acclaim, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize for “night, Mother.” All the while, she influenced new playwrights, as she still does, through a prestigious Juilliard Conservatory program.

Marsha Norman, for those, and many other reasons, is a major name in serious drama. Ask any theater buff. So it was something of a shock in our phone interview when she said bluntly, “Don’t look for any more plays from me.”

“Years ago,” she said from her home in the New York City area, “I realized I am not going to do better than ‘night, Mother.’ I’d explored that vein and I was ready to step down from being the queen of serious drama. So okay — I was ready to write in another form.”

That form turned out to be the passion she had nurtured before fame came in through another door. For the last decades she has shaped an entirely new and mightily influential career as a leading book and libretto pioneer in the modern world of musicals.

While not directly involved in the Milwaukee Rep’s massive production of the musical exploration of “The Color Purple” — with 25 actors, six musicians and 22 songs under artistic director Mark Clements unfolding at the Quadradacci Powerhouse stage through Nov. 2, with a Sept. 26 opening after three previews — she fashioned the dramatic spine the company is exploring.

Those who knew her when she burst onto the “serious playwright” scene in the 1970s are rather shocked to realize that the musical version of a powerful novel of personal growth and love, focusing on repressed black women in rural Georgia in the 1930s, had her at its center. Nor does it jump into their thinking she played the pivotal role in the 1990s musical “The Secret Garden” (book and lyrics, which won her a Tony to go along with her Pulitzer) or this year’s musical book for “The Bridges of Madison County.”

She was heavily involved in the original 2005 Broadway run of CP (as theater people call “The Color Purple” musical) and its subsequent national and world tours. She recalls that it broke the mold of who goes to theater on Broadway, and who producers solicit to buy tickets, now a broader group than the previous white and upper middle class enclaves. “It was an exploration of the power of love and faith in hard times and it recognized as neither the book or the movie could the central role of music in this African American community,” she said.

Even more than the sales pitch, she says, “That drew the audience, including huge groups of people from churches, since an understanding of faith and endurance was such a key element to our vision. One of the great joys of my life is to look out at the audience for this musical and revel not just in its diversity, but how different worlds receive it.”

“Every culture brings its own reaction to the work. It was stripped down in an exquisite production in London that sought another way into its essence. I think the key is to speak to the people in front of you — so please, let me know if Milwaukee shares that immediacy.”

Norman’s shift in writing style was, she says, inevitable. “Actually I always loved musicals and leaned toward them even back in Kentucky,” she recalled. “I went to school on a music scholarship. For me it was natural. You can only get so far in text and then you need to sing.”

“Musical theater is staggering,” she added, “a huge and powerful tool. All writers create through material that excites them, but forms change. About 15 of our Juilliard playwriting graduates have switched to TV shows and stopped writing stage plays, so there is always evolution.”

She is comfortable (though maybe not perfectly comfortable) that the vital theater name “Marsha Norman” is not first or even fourth on the public’s lips when it comes to “The Color Purple.” The first name is always, as it should be, Alice Walker, the author of the seminal novel. Then though the stage vision is quite different, Steven Spielberg, the director of the film. Then Whoopi Goldberg, its star.  And Oprah Winfrey, a supporting actress in the film and a media powerhouse (“She was essential,” recalls Norman)  in bringing the musical to Broadway.

Almost every work Norman has helped turn into a musical has been a literary legend that also possesses commercial viability. Only her eclecticism seems to connect “Color Purple,” “The Secret Garden,” “Bridges of Madison County” and future musicals such as “Matewan” – yes that serious drama and 1980s film about a furious coal mining strike in the 1920s — and even “King Kong,” which is in development.

She recalls the saying of the late great master of musical adaptation for the stage, Peter Stone, who also created the screenplays for “Charade” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two and Three” along with the books for such complicated musicals as “1776.”

“Peter always said ‘You can’t cut up a sofa to make a chair.’ As much as people may love the literary original, the sofa, you have to bring a fresh eye and a theatrical approach to carve a completely new piece of furniture. You’re not simplifying, you’re finding a new way in.”

Interior monologues are as common in novels as close-up reactions are in film, so the stage, of course, requires a different approach. Norman used “Bridges of Madison County” as an example:

“Here, those who know the story think it is all about what passes between two people in an intimate (and adulterous) romance, but for the stage we had to create an entire community for them to interact with, to provide the background of their emotional vulnerability. ‘Color Purple’ as a musical demanded a totally different journey than the novel’s readers anticipate.”

“People laugh when they hear I’m doing ‘Matewan’ as a musical (her current project). Nothing sounds more ridiculous than a bunch of coal miners singing. Yet their struggles demand the size and scope that musicals can bring. That’s why I love solving the puzzle of big musicals.”

Writers of works decades ago often anticipated current events. Domestic abuse is all over headlines thanks to the NFL and the Ray Rice video, she commented, but “The Color Purple” examines an American era where callous treatment of wives as property and physical abuse by men were commonplace.

Themes of importance to mankind, such as midlife passion, family relationships, sensitivity among species, treatment of workers (“The wives in coal mining country are as much the victims of dust in the lungs as the workers”) run through her musical output just as the aftermath of prison and the consequences of suicide ran through her serious plays. But the earlier work is treated as intellectual, she notes, and the other is not.

“Because, let’s face it,” she said, raising a topic that clearly bothers her about today’s theater audiences. “The customers fall into two camps. They love plays or they love musicals.

Most serious lovers of plays look down their noses at musicals. They think it’s just about dancing and silly songs.”

Theater has done this to itself, she agrees, falling in love with the glitch of technology rather than the possibilities of technology. “Musicals have become (amusement) rides,” she said. “You can get in on Times Square and go on the ride. And most of those rides are worth forgetting tomorrow.”

“There’s a deeper way of looking at musical theater. Stephen Sondheim started people thinking about a different model, and now so many young composers are exploring that special sense of wonder.” She was discussing those works that depend on the music and not just catchy songs to carry the drama forward. “It’s opened theater up to a wider range of customers, which has to be healthy and probably essential to survival.”

There were, she remembers, many reasons to make “The Color Purple” a musical, but something happened opening night that sticks with her. The original author, Alice Walker, “came up to thank me, and I asked her why. The success of the musical, she said, ensured her financial security. Frankly, while there were a lot of reasons to do this, that alone would have been enough for me.”

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

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