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Purlie Victorious

James Vagias is planning a Broadway revival of the Gary Geld-Peter Udell-Philip Rose musical Purlie. logo
James Vagias still remembers that day in 1970 when he was a teenager, doing yard work in New Milford, New Jersey. All the while, he was telling his teenage co-worker about Purlie, the musical he'd recently seen on Broadway and had gone crazy for, even though star Cleavon Little was out of the show and James had had to settle for understudy Morgan Freeman. But Melba Moore had showed up for work that day, and Vagias went on and on and on not only about how wonderful the show was but also Moore and the music -- especially when they converged in "I Got Love," which musical theater historians must list as the first showstopper of the 1970s.

Vagias (pronounced VYE-us, by the way), was so convincing that the kid decided that, yeah, he too wanted to see and hear Purlie and Melba Moore. So Vagias called his father and asked if he'd drive them into to the city to buy tickets, which was the way you did it before the days of Ticketmaster and TeleCharge. Now, given that they were interested in a future performance, they could have mail-ordered through dad's checking account; but Vagias had decided that only front-row center seats would do, and you couldn't count on that happening through mail order. So a visit to the box office at the Broadway Theatre was mandatory.

Dad obliged, and the two kids, still in their muddy jeans and sweatshirts, headed into the city. Once at the box office, Vagias asked for the next performance when he could get front-row center seats, and was told that very night. Well, he wasn't prepared for this, and given that he and his friend looked as if they were overgrown Oliver! orphans, he was reluctant to head into a theater where -- in those days, if not now -- people still dressed up to see a show. But the lure of seeing Purlie from the front row only hours away caused Vagias to make the decision to see the show that night. Dad was sent home, and even though the kids now had to figure in bus money to get back to New Milford, Vagias still wanted to spring for some flowers for Melba Moore. The two kids stood by the stage door and presented the bouquet when Moore arrived. Vagias told her how much she and the show meant to him, and that he was attending for the second time. Moore asked where he was sitting, and when he proudly proclaimed "First-row center!" she said she'd look for him.

Vagias is 49 now, but he still talks with passion about the chill that he felt up his spine and everywhere else when Moore, sitting in a rocking chair, officially looked right at him before she began her showstopper. "Actually," he says, "they had to scoop me off the floor." This was the second of four trips that he made to see the show during its Broadway run, but he was responsible for many more ticket sales than that. "I figured it out once," he says, "and I'll bet I sold 35 other people on buying tickets for the show -- and I'm sure that some of them sold people on seeing it, too. When my uncle got married, I gave him tickets to Purlie as his wedding gift. When I finally got to talk to the authors, I joked, 'You owe me money.' " The reason that Vagias talked to co-bookwriter and original producer-director Philip Rose, composer Gary Geld, and lyricist Peter Udell was not merely to praise or thank them but to start negotiations for a Broadway revival of Purlie. Now Vagias has secured the rights and plans to bring the show to a Broadway theater near us sometime next season.

You might not know the name James Vagias, but there are at least two writers in town who'll never forget them. They had written a show that couldn't get on, one that was truly dead in the water before Vagias insisted that it was a winner. At the time, he was the producing director of the American Stage Company in Teaneck, New Jersey, and he was convinced that there was an audience for this show. Take it from someone who makes his living writing about New Jersey theater, Vagias told me many times in those days of the early '90s that people were discouraging him from producing I Love You! You're Perfect! Now Change!, but he kept insisting that it would have a run -- and, needless to say, it has. Not only that, Vagias made bookwriter-lyricist Joe DiPietro his playwright-in-residence at the theater; the arrangement yielded Over the River and through the Woods, which had a healthy two-year run Off-Broadway and plenty of regional productions, too. Former sportswriter DiPietro knows that Vagias is the important building block in his career and that he wouldn't be readying All Shook Up if Vagias hadn't taken a chance on him and composer Jimmy Roberts way back when.

While Vagias was at American Stage, he also worked with Sheldon (Play On!) Epps, and both expressed their mutual love for Purlie. Now that Epps is artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, he told Vagias that he would revive the show. "You do it there" Vagias told him, "and I'll bring it here." So after the June-July 2005 Pasadena run, Vagias will probably take the Epps-directed production first to another regional theater and then to New York. In between all this, Vagias got a phone call from Philip Rose, who said that Encores! was interested in giving Purlie one of its glorified readings next season. Even after Purlie was put on the City Center schedule, Vagias didn't start worrying that the staged concert will take away his thunder. "On the contrary," he says, "it's going to help us enormously, because it will whet everyone's appetite for it. They'll want it to go from a concert version to something with sets and costumes and full-scale choreography."

But what if the reviews are bad at Encores! and the critics say that time has passed Purlie by? After all, the show does deal with white-black conflicts in the old South, where a Captain treats his employees as if they were slaves and expects them to love him just because he provides for them. "Bad reviews are a slim possibility," Vagias says. "The odds are very much in our favor. We're not sure if we're going to go the star route or if we'll do what Phil Rose did -- find talented newcomers like Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, both of whom won Tonys -- and make them stars."

While I only saw Purlie at its final preview and at its 1981 taping at Lehman College in the Bronx, and while I don't agree with all of Vagias's feelings about the show, I cannot deny the power of the glorious score. At that final preview, there was great audience frenzy over "I Got Love," which wasn't even listed in the program. "Right," says Vagias, ready to tell the story. "The had a ballet that wasn't working, so they decided to cut it. Phil Rose asked Gary and Peter to write something new, and they came back in 20 minutes with the whole song. Gary said to the conductor, 'Here's where you should start the encore.' When the conductor wondered if there would be an encore, Gary assured him there would be one -- and there was." How nice that there will now be an encore for the entire show.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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