Allee Willis has a special interest in the cast album of the Broadway revival of The Color Purple that will be released on February 12th. She wrote the music and lyrics, along with two fellow songwriters, Brenda Russell and Stephen Bray.
It was her first Broadway show, but hardly her first foray into show business. Her songs, she says, have sold more than 50 million records, and she composed both the theme song for the TV series Friends and won a Grammy for best soundtrack for the movie Beverly Hills Cop. She is also a visual artist, a collector, a director, even an Internet pioneer and a dedicated party thrower.
Below is our edited discussion:
Jonathan Mandell: The Color Purple cast recording is ready to be released. What should we know about it?
Allee Willis: The cast recording for the revival is very different from the original cast precording….The singing this time is looser, in the best sense of the word, and the arrangements are more stripped down to match the rawness and minimalism of the production.
Do you remember the first cast recording you ever listened to?
AW: The very first cast album I remember loving is West Side Story. Also The Pajama Game and Oklahoma!, all three of which I was also exposed to as movies which helped in my enthusiasm. I was not someone who went to musicals. I grew up in Detroit and my life was about Motown and pop and soul music.
Did theater music influence your songwriting?
AW: Without knowing it, Company had a huge influence on me, although I’m not sure how…When we got the gig to write The Color Purple we spent a year doing nothing but listening to cast recordings of every era and discussing them…During this research period, we became rabid fans of Stephen Sondheim…We loved how Sondheim wrote for individual characters, matching the mood of the music to their moods….I was absolutely shocked to realize that an album I had recorded in the early 70s called Childstar, which contained the first ten songs I ever wrote, was heavily influenced by Sondheim’s writing, even though I had never seen Company and wasn’t listening to cast albums. I have no idea how this happened but it made me even more of a fan of his.
Neither Brenda, Stephen nor I had ever written a Broadway show before. People are making a huge thing of how our three leading actresses have never been on Broadway before. I think it’s easily as much of a feat that the composer/lyricists had never written a musical before. But we felt our naïveté matched that of our lead character so we tried to write from that spot in our hearts regarding all of the characters, and combining that with time honored traditions of musical theatre. Where theater music really influenced us was that we didn’t have to stick to the conventions of pop songwriting. I was always someone who liked to jam together different rhythms and feels in my pop songs anyway so that part of me really came out in the writing of the Purple score.
How did you get involved with The Color Purple?
AW: I was good friends with the lead producer, Scott Sanders, when he first bought the rights to do The Color Purple as a musical in 1998. He took me out to dinner to tell me about it and I naturally thought he was going to ask me to write it. But instead he gave me the names of two other songwriters and asked me to recommend which one of them should get the gig..One year later Scott called me again when it didn’t work out. I thought for sure he was going to ask me to write the show this time but instead he gave me the names of 50 songwriters and asked me to choose who should compete to write a spec song to get the gig.
My name wasn’t on the list, but there was Brenda Russell, who was actually on her way over to my house that minute to co-write the score for an animated series on Oxygen that I co-created. I asked if I Brenda and I could compete as a team and if we could bring in our third collaborator we were working with on the series, Stephen Bray. Scott said OK but no special favors.
The only advantage we had was that I picked who we competed against, but I honestly chose who I thought was best.
We felt that we were born to write it and thank God we were right. We spent the next four years doing so.
Which moment in The Color Purple is the most meaningful to you, or says in a nutshell the most about the show as a whole — as an audience member (in other words, simply viewing it, as opposed to your involvement in it.)
AW: The most meaningful moment in the show to me is when Celie sings the final few words of her 11 o’clock song, “I’m Here”. The audience, every single audience every single night, literally gasps, yells out words of encouragement and then follows with a long standing ovation in the middle of the show. They’ve taken the journey with Celie and experience her epiphany along with her as she realizes after her long and brutal struggle that it all comes down to believing in herself and her own resiliency. “I’m beautiful, yes I’m beautiful, and I’m here.”
What specific single moment are you proudest of?
AW: I’m someone who writes both music and lyrics but never learned how to play. As a consequence I’m completely spontaneous and not tied to any musical rules. So I’m quite proud of some of the melodies that I just sang cold like the preludes to “Hell No” and “The Color Purple”. I love just looking at words, letting the feeling wash over me, and singing whatever comes out. I also love spewing out lyrics spontaneously. I think that the music throughout the show took on a very spontaneous spirit because of that.
We three music composers and lyricists wrote every single word and note of music together in the same room at the same time but we all had three very different musical strengths. Mine was definitely spontaneity and rule breaking.
What is different about this production on Broadway than the original?
AW: That question is easy. The first production was a big Broadway show, much more traditional in its approach. Neither myself nor my two musical collaborators had ever written a Broadway show before. And as such we wrote a rather untraditional score. We also fully orchestrated at least three quarters of the songs as opposed to letting people hear them just accompanied by piano. These arrangements were ignored in the original production and many of the songs took on much more traditional orchestrations. You can take one look at me and know that I don’t like to do anything that’s traditional.
This current production in all ways shapes and forms is much more in line with my personal aesthetic and approach to doing things. It’s stripped to the bone and executed not with the eye of making a big Broadway musical but through the eye of strictly spotlighting the story, music and lyrics, and characters. Much more is left to the imagination of the audience.
I can’t tell you how many people have asked if we rewrote the music yet literally not one note has changed and only one short musical transition was eliminated. Marsha Norman, our fabulous book writer, and John Doyle, our incredible director, eliminated 20 minutes of dialogue which also helped streamline the production.
Another important point for me is that I’m a multimedia artist and so is John. I think you always get a more focused and experimental approach when the same person directs, designs the set, choreographs, etc. That’s the school I come from. So, all in all, this production is much more aligned with how I approach creativity and the way I think about structuring things. And that makes me very happy!
You mention that you’re a multimedia artist. You’ve actually had an extraordinarily varied career. Which has been most satisfying to you?
AW: Despite whatever success I had I always viewed myself as an outsider. I never really fit into the record industry or art gallery scene, just like I don’t really fit into the theatre scene.
Beyond anything I loved social directing, i.e. throwing parties – very conceptual affairs, children’s parties gone wrong, where I would do everything from design the invitation to build sets, cast fictional characters to host games and activities I designed, to emceeing and DJing everything. My parties were the only place that I got to do everything I do in one place as opposed to writing a song for this one, writing a script for that one, building a set for someone else, etc. With my parties I could get an idea and express it through every single medium I worked in. And I could stick my guests, handpicked as if I were casting a show, in the middle of the ideas to interact with everything and everyone around them.
The Color Purple in onstage at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street, NYC.
Details and tickets