The Playgoer: "Purple" People

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Friday, June 22, 2007

"Purple" People

...and they're "eating" it up! The Color Purple, that is!

Who said I can't write for Entertainment Tonight.

(Then again, no one under 35 probably got this joke. "Purple People Eater?" Anyone?)

Well let me turn it over to a real tabloid, the NY Post, and its theatre man Michael Riedel for his breakdown of The Color Purple's continued success--moreover, in-the-black success--on Broadway despite very middling initial reception:

On Wednesday, she [82 year old Lucille Goldsborough] and 55 other "Jewels of the Ebenezer" (as the seniors call themselves) boarded a Peter Pan bus at 6 a.m. to make the 61/2-hour trip to New York to see their idol....

The Jewels of the Ebenezer - which included a few grandchildren and the odd husband - is just one of hundreds of groups from black churches around the country that have made the pilgrimage to see "The Color Purple" since it opened in the fall of 2006. The groups have become a marketing phenomenon, turning the $10 million musical, which received mixed notices when it first opened, into a very profitable show for its backers, who include Oprah Winfrey.

Stand outside the Broadway Theatre on any given day, and you'll see four or five buses, some from as far away as Chattanooga and Atlanta, unloading their passengers. (Not all the groups are from churches. The show also attracts student groups, labor groups, even family reunions.) What was a steady stream of business last year has turned into a torrent since Fantasia joined the show in April. "The Color Purple" now regularly grosses more than $1 million a week, and advance ticket sales are nearing $10 million.

Church groups are an enormous and, for Broadway, which has long struggled to attract black audiences, relatively untapped market.
Now let us pause over this "long struggled to attrack black audiences" part. My sense is that most Broadway producers couldn't care less about the diversity of the audience. Diversity is all well and good for pr, but can drag you down if it means lowering your ticket prices (and hence profits) to attract them. So let's be clear--despite the decrying of Broadway as a rich white enclave by some for many years, I don't think "Broadway" itself--as personified by the people really making the decisions--has made black attendance any kind of serious goal.

Now on the subject of African Americands simply not going to Broadway shows let's remember some recent shows: P. Diddy in "Raising in the Son"; Usher in "Chicago"; even Brandy in "Aida," I seem to recall. In each case we heard from the white press, "Wow, black people at the theatre! Finally!" But isn't the pattern obvious? An audience--any audience--turns out for performers it really wants to see. In this case it's Fantasia, of course. If the material speaks to this audience--as Color Purple obviously does, not just in content but in its gospel- and soul-infused idiom--even better. Though note how "Aida" and "Chicago" are certainly white musicals--even if Elton John thinks he's black and "Chicago" does address the very relevant issue of corrupt justice better than any other play currently on.

Needless to say, people of any race, ethnicity, or culture will respond, I believe, to something of quality, something genuinely entertaining and stirring. However, the art of marketing is convincing people they will enjoy something, even when their perception of the show tells them otherwise. That's probably the biggest obstacle in Broadway/Black relations.

By the way, we always hear that the racial barrier is a price barrier, but look at this:
The cost [for the Jewels of Ebenezer trip] is $160 per person and includes an orchestra ticket, transportation and dinner after the show at Applebee's.
Ok, I guess that's a good value for a DC-NYC roundtrip, dinner, and a show. And I'm sure any B'way producer would prefer to pocket that whole $160 as "premium" seating. But still, it's not "cheap."

Insert Applebee's joke here.

My point is: attracting "different" audiences to Broadway--or the theatre in general--is no rocket science. Lower ticket prices, yes. But usually the $30-$40 range will do the trick if the show is attractive. No one wants to be the only black person in 1,000-seat house of white people--just as the vice-versa is true. So attracting--nay, soliciting groups also works.

Just more money in Oprah's pockets, you say? Perhaps. Still, gotta hand it to a show that defies the conventional wisdom. And, who knows, perhaps there's lessons here for nonprofits and regionals as well.

And it doesn't hurt that Fantasia reportedly really delivers....Can anyone verify that?


Anonymous said...

One thing that Riedel doesn't bring up is the gasps of disgust and revulsion in the audience that are quite audible each time the show depicts the teeny-tiny remnant of lesbianism that has been allowed to survive from Alice Walker's novel and the movie. Church groups are, let's say, a mixed blessing.

Jaime said...

Just for the record, based on the night I saw it, "Caroline, or Change," sans star, was one of the most racially diverse (okay, had the most black people) audiences I've ever seen. Ditto for "Radio Golf," and "King Hedley" at Signature, if maybe not as strikingly.

Moxie said...

Passing Strange's audience was pretty diverse when I was there. Pretty cool to see folks of all ethnicities/ages/backgrounds really getting into the rock songs, smiling, grooving with the music, etc.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I agree with anonymous... I heard a similar response when I first saw the show in 2005.