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Back On Broadway: 'The Color Purple'

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Back On Broadway: 'The Color Purple'

Theater

Back On Broadway: 'The Color Purple'

Back On Broadway: 'The Color Purple'

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Cynthia Erivo stars on Broadway as Celie in The Color Purple. She talks with NPR's Scott Simon about the production, and revisits one of the first songs she sang for an audience: Silent Night.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"The Color Purple" is back on Broadway. The musical made from Alice Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the basis of a 1985 film by Steven Spielberg then a 2005 musical.

It's at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre. It stars Jennifer Hudson in her Broadway debut, Danielle Brooks, and as Celie who begins the show as a 14-year-old girl who loves but is forced to give away her baby, it stars Cynthia Erivo, the British singer and songwriter who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The Broadway show is her U.S. stage debut and for this role, she had to lose that British accent. She thinks performing an accent is like singing a song.

CYNTHIA ERIVO: When I was younger, I just liked the sound of different accents, and I used to just play around to see if I could do things. I hear accents like music, so that's what helps me to learn them. I knew how to do an American accent a long time ago, but I like to try and be as specific as possible.

SIMON: And this is rural Georgia...

ERIVO: This is Georgia, yeah.

SIMON: ...In the 1930s.

ERIVO: Yeah, so I tried to find the right texture of the accent - the right song, I guess, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah. A lot of attention is paid to this cast. You join a distinguished cast, certainly distinguished in your own right. But Jennifer Hudson...

ERIVO: Yes.

SIMON: ...Who probably needs no introduction and Danielle Brooks...

ERIVO: Yes.

SIMON: ...Who a lot of, I think, our listeners know from "Orange Is The New Black," but may not know her by name. What's it like to be on stage with them?

ERIVO: Really wonderful, actually. They're both very, very open, and they share wonderfully. So it's - I feel like we support each other, and it feels like we've got this great rapport with each other. Now we've fallen in love, I guess, with each other, very much so.

SIMON: Well that suits the material...

ERIVO: Yeah, it does. Yeah.

SIMON: ...Too because, actually, your three characters, at one time or another, do kind of fall in love.

ERIVO: Yeah, completely.

SIMON: Which raises a question - do you think this production - I'm assuming you saw the Spielberg film at one point.

ERIVO: Yes, I did. Yeah.

SIMON: And that film, which was widely acclaimed, at the same time there's some people that thought that he had gone soft on the lesbianism in the film. And I wonder if you think this production is just a little bolder.

ERIVO: I think it's a little bolder because John is that kind of person. One of his main things was that he wanted to make sure that the relation...

SIMON: John is?

ERIVO: John Doyle, our director - he wanted to make a point of the relationships between the women come forward, I guess, more so and to be unafraid of that - to make it clear that they're two people who fell in love.

SIMON: Shug is the bad girl who goes off to Memphis to sing and comes back to town. But she's not a...

ERIVO: I guess so. She's a - yeah, she's the Mary Magdalene of the piece, I guess. You know, the woman who has a wonderful heart of gold but not the best reputation. And I like daring, so I like the idea that we can push the boundaries a little bit with this. And also, I guess, it being on stage, you have the chance to do that. People want things that are a bit more daring when you're on stage, when it's live theater.

SIMON: I had the pleasure of attending a performance. As well-known as this story is, when you exchange your first kiss with Shug - and I bet this happens every night - there's still some (gasp).

ERIVO: There's still a (gasp), oh my gosh. Yeah. And I'm still, like, shocked every time I hear that reaction because I'm, like, I'm sure you know this happens. I feel like they've, up until that point, they forget that these two people fall in love. And it's a wonderful thing because I think people come into the theater sort of forgetting anything that's come before which gives us a chance to really, I guess, to affect properly because no one's expecting anything other than what we give.

SIMON: The show opens with a heart-stopper.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADWAY MUSICAL, "THE COLOR PURPLE")

ERIVO: (As Celie, singing) God's going to see you through to part with you more than I can bear. But somebody's going to love you.

SIMON: And that's you singing to an infant - "Somebody's Gonna Love You."

ERIVO: Yeah.

SIMON: Could you put us in that?

ERIVO: Yeah, she - she's 14 at that point - 14, 15. She gives birth - we simulate the birth on-stage, and she's alone. She's by herself, and she sings this lullaby "Somebody Gonna Love You" and is pretty much a cappella. There's some, like, almost plainsong humming behind it until the very last line, which is I'm always going to love you. And she sings that on her own.

(Singing, as Celie) Oh, I'm always going to love you.

And it's actually one of my favorites, just because it's so simple. And - it's a mother singing to her baby. She just wants her baby to know that she loves him and will always be there for him, no matter what, and you find out that that song is completely needed (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah because she - her father says she has to give the baby up, yeah.

ERIVO: Yeah.

SIMON: When did you first have an inkling that you could sing?

ERIVO: (Laughter) When I was about five (laughter) - I tell this story because I can remember it like it was yesterday. I did the nativity play, and they put me in as a shepherd. And for some reason, they asked me to sing "Silent Night" by myself. So when I finished singing "Silent Night," everybody started clapping, and they got up. Now, when you're five, you don't realize what that means or what it is. I just knew that it felt good. And I knew that people were happy because I could see it on their faces.

So, I guess, from that moment on, I got the bug and realized that whatever sound is coming out of my mouth when I sing songs makes people happy. That makes me happy, so I guess I just continued to do it from there. You just tie it to the most simple thing of - does it make people happy? Yes. Does it make me happy? Yes. I'll keep doing it then.

SIMON: How do you react to the criticism that really dates back when Alice Walker's novel came out in the 1980s, that the male characters are villainized - that black men are villainized in this piece?

ERIVO: Well, my understanding is that this story comes from the point of view of someone who's been through a lot of terrible things herself. This is not something that she plucked out of the sky. I think a lot of it is life experience. And we sat there, and we talked with her. And she said these characters are based on real people. I know these people. This is a story I'm telling because they exist. And if this story didn't exist, then I'd be the first to say, OK, they're there being villainized. But these are actual people, and the thing is, if people have read the novel, they will know.

And also, I think, in the film, these characters are redeemable. They become redeemed, and my understanding is a villain is a villain though and through, and they become defeated as opposed to redeemed. And I don't think they are made out to be villains. I think they're made out to be who they were and then who they become. I think people - often it comes from the people that haven't either read, seen or heard of the play. They just have heard a couple of things about it and don't look into the details. Look into details, and they'll find everything they need.

SIMON: You volunteered that the first song you sang that got notice was "Silent Night."

ERIVO: Yeah.

SIMON: We're in the season again.

ERIVO: Yeah.

SIMON: Could we have a couple of lines?

ERIVO: OK (laughter).

SIMON: Thank you.

ERIVO: Yeah. (Singing) Silent night, holy night. All is calm. All is bright, 'round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.

SIMON: Thank you so much.

ERIVO: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: And happy holidays.

ERIVO: Same to you.

SIMON: Cynthia Erivo stars in "The Color Purple" on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILENT NIGHT")

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