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That '70 Show

Filichia looks forward to the Encores! presentation of Purlie and looks back on the original Broadway production.

By New York City
On that Saturday afternoon of March 14, 1970, I didn't have high expectations as I walked into the Broadway Theatre. I mean, who were Gary Geld and Peter Udell, who had written the score for this Purlie? (If someone had told me that they'd written one of my favorite adolescent pop-rock hits, "Sealed with a Kiss," I would have felt differently.) Who were the show's "stars," Cleavon Little, Melba Moore, and Sherman Hemsley? The play it was based on, Purlie Victorious -- what was that? (It had been made into a movie, the title of which was eventually changed to Gone Are the Days and later, when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became a popular TV show, to The Man from C.O.T.T.O.N.) Yes, the producer of Purlie was Philip Rose, who'd brought us A Raisin in the Sun. But Rose's only previous entry into the field of musicals had been Bravo, Giovanni. And, good Lord, this time Rose was also listed as a co-author of the book -- one of three, which sure sounded like the script has been doctored aplenty.

Purlie was a Broadway musical and therefore demanded my attention, but I certainly didn't guess that it would be the first hit of the 1969-70 season. (Coco didn't quite count). I assumed that it would join the ranks of the other failures. Would it match the 84-performance run of Jimmy or would it close closer to Georgy's four? Because it was opening the next day -- a Sunday -- I wondered if it would shutter after one performance, as La Strada and Gantry already had. Or would it run the week, which was all that Buck White could manage -- even though that one had the curiosity factor of Muhammad Ali in the lead? The only thing I was sure of was that Purlie would run longer on Broadway than 1491, the Meredith Willson musical that had closed out of town three months earlier.

But Purlie wound up running longer than all of the above shows combined -- nearly twice as long, in fact. It stayed at the Broadway until December 15, 1970, when it moved to the Winter Garden. Later, it took to the ANTA (now the Virginia), where it closed on November 6, 1971 after 688 performances. Interesting that all the theaters in which it played were in the 50s, but that wasn't uptown enough to reach the show's target audience. After all, blacks living in Harlem didn't often go to Broadway. In his 1969 book The Season, William Goldman wrote that there were then a million blacks in New York -- 14% of the population. But he noted that, when he commissioned a study to see how many blacks were among the first 100 patrons to enter a theater, Portrait of a Queen had two, Here's Where I Belong had one, and Golden Rainbow had none. Only for the all-black version of Hello, Dolly! did the figure reach 11%, and that was really a white show. Hallelujah, Baby! was more black, to be sure but it was also written by whites. (Goldman offered no statistics for it.)

Purlie was also mostly written by whites. Only Ossie Davis, who had authored the original Purlie Victorious and was credited as one of the triumvirate of book writers, was black -- and since he was a self-proclaimed hater of musicals, he obviously didn't contribute much new material. Yet Purlie felt far more black than Hallelujah, Baby! And while Buck White certainly had a black sensibility, it was an angry show. Purlie, though running the risk of being retro even back then, had a sense of humor about itself -- but was careful to make Rev. Purlie Victorious speak often about the black pride that his relatives, friends, and neighbors should have. The Reverend also wanted the black man to take responsibility for not having advanced more in society, a theme that Charles Fuller would explore some years later in his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play.

Purlie takes place on a South Georgia sharecroppers farm in "the recent past." The story is not unlike that of Anastasia. Reverend Purlie Victorious (Cleavon Little) is trying to pass off Lutiebelle (Melba Moore) as Cousin Bee, who's entitled to $500 that Ol' Cap'n Cotchipee is "holding for safekeeping." No one knows where Cousin Bee is, so Purlie -- aware that "white folks can't tell one of us from another" -- figures he can get the money and buy the local church for his people. But when Lutiebelle realizes that she's being asked to participate in a scam, she decides not to get involved. Both Purlie and his sister-in-law, Missy (Novella Nelson) implore her, though Missy's husband -- Purlie's brother Gitlow (Sherman Hemsley) -- has been placed in a somewhat important position by Cap'n and therefore feels loyal to him. Still, the ruse is tried, and Cap'n does believe that Lutiebelle is Bee -- until Lutiebelle signs her own name instead of Bee's on the receipt that Cap'n demands. He is forgiving enough to say that he'll accept Lutiebelle's body as recompense. (That a white man so cavalierly expects to have a black woman infuriates Purlie.) Cap'n is angry at Lutiebelle's rebuff, so he engages his son Charlie (C. David Colson), to buy the church and then burn it. Charlie, however, is tired of his father's evil ways. He does buy the church -- but he puts Purlie's name on the deed. Cap'n literally dies on his feet when he hears the news, and Purlie dedicates the church with the funeral of his old adversary.

Why Cap'n isn't buried by whites is never established, but as you can see, Purlie doesn't have a great book. Most of the songs are pretty spirited, though, including the opening numbers of the first act ("Walk Him up the Stairs") and the second ("First Thing Monday Morning.") In between, there's a jaunty strut of a title tune, a stirring anthem ("He Can Do It"), and a tense but effective first-act closer ("Down Home.") Granted, there are a lot of clichés in Udell's lyrics -- "(There's More Than One Way of) Skinnin' a Cat," "The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall," and "Big Fish, Little Fish" -- but Geld's melodies compensate.

And then there's "I Got Love," added during the last week of previews and not even listed in my program that Saturday afternoon. When I asked Peter Udell about this a few years ago, he told me, "We hired Melba -- who'd been a teacher and an occasional back-up singer -- because she seemed to be such a comic actress. But then she was stopping the show with the title song, so Phil Rose said, 'You've got to write another song for this lady.' Within a day, I had the title, and Gary wrote the music partly when he saw the lyric at the Stage Delicatessen around the corner from the theater. We played Melba the song, she learned it immediately, and Garry Sherman wrote the orchestration that night. It was like one of those things you see in the movies when songs come together that quickly, and I loved watching all the ushers come back in from the outer lobby to hear her sing it."

Others came from a greater distance: Phil Rose started marketing to black churches and club groups, and was successful in getting their constituents to come to Broadway. In the process, he helped to change the Broadway audience. Doubt it? In the five years before Purlie's opening, there were all of three new shows -- Hallelujah, Baby!, Maggie Flynn, and Buck White -- with black themes. In the five years following Purlie's opening, there were eight: The Me Nobody Knows, Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death, Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope, Don't Play Us Cheap, Dr. Jazz, Treemonisha, and two consecutive Tony winners, Raisin and The Wiz -- not to mention a revival of Lost in the Stars.

We're in a bit of a Purlie renaissance now. There's an Encores! performance this week, then a production that will run in California this summer and in Chicago come fall, with a planned Broadway engagement next year. London finally saw the show in the fall of 2004. Lyn Gardner was prompted to write in the Guardian, "This is a musical, not a Black Panther rally, and the show's heart, good intentions, and strong sense of injustice are clear for all to see. Purlie may be unsophisticated in both form and politics, but it makes for two and a half hours of rousing fun." See you at City Center this week!

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]


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