Neither Allee Willis nor Stephen Bray had a musical on their minds seven years ago, when they were at Willis’ Los Angeles home working on music for a pair of animated projects along with singer-songwriter Brenda Russell.
Mostly, however, the trio was “just having fun and hanging out,” according to Bray. But the casual sessions showed them that “the three of us had good chemistry, a real easy flow together. Brenda literally said at one point, ‘Now all we need is a real project.’”
Two weeks later, Bray recalls, theater producer Scott Sanders called to say he’d purchased the rights for a musical production of “The Color Purple.”
“He said, ‘Who do you think would be good for that?’” Bray remembers. “Allee said the three of us should have a shot at it. None of us was willing to say ‘no’ to working on that as a piece of musical history.”
Thus was born a team and a project for which Willis and Bray — both native Detroiters — and Russell, received rave reviews and were nominated for a Tony Award. It also taught all three some new skills that they never anticipated pursuing.
“‘The Color Purple’ was really incredible to work on,” says Willis, 58. “A musical was not anything I actively pursued or really wanted to. I was a TV and radio and film gal, and that was it.
“But I love doing new things. I resist them,” she adds, laughing, “and it takes me a long time and procrastinating to get over the hump in getting involved. But I went from not understanding and not liking (theater) to kind of understanding and really liking it.
“And it was great working with my collaborators, who had been two really good friends beforehand.”
All three of the songwriters came to the project with heady credentials. Willis, a Mumford High School graduate who left town to study at the University of Wisconsin, and then started her career working for record companies in New York before moving west. Her hit credits also include the Rembrandts’ “Friends” theme “I’ll Be There For You,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” (which earned Willis a Grammy Award when it was included on the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack) and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland.” She also recorded an album of her own, “Childstar,” in 1974.
Bray, 51 — who, like Willis, grew up on Detroit’s northwest side but attended parochial school and then Washtentaw County Community College — is best known as one of Madonna’s early collaborators after the two met in Ann Arbor. Both were part of a band called the Breakfast Club, and Bray has also worked with Kylie Minogue, the Jets and others, and operates a recording studio as well as his own label, Soultone Records.
Russell, meanwhile, is a recording artist who’s also written songs for Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Sting, Donna Summer and Earth, Wind & Fire.
While all three were anxious to tackle the challenge of “The Color Purple,” they knew that perspectives on the musical would be touched by the somber tone of the 1985 Steven Spielberg-directed film version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
“I think a lot of people’s reactions were, ‘How do you turn something that’s so dark and so powerfully kind of horrible in musical terms, unless you’re talking about an opera or something really heavy,” Bray notes. “Probably that’s the knee-jerk reaction you have to it unless you re-read the novel, which we all did.
“And when you do that, there’s all the other aspects you kind of forget, a lot of the humor that’s in that novel along with the tragedy. It’s one of those very well-rounded pieces of literature that encompasses so many different aspects of life.”
After successfully auditioning with the bluesy piece that became “Shug Avery Comin’ to Town,” the trio operated “without a rudder” for about a year, according to Bray, until Marsha Norman was brought in to write the musical’s book and Gary Griffin signed on as director. It was, according to Willis, a highly collaborative process unlike standard musicals.
“People think the book writer writes the script and the music writers go off and slide songs into spot, but that’s absolutely not how it was written,” she says.
“Everyone created together. We all wrote the structure together and picked what worked best from the (Walker) book, what worked best from the movie, what was now going to work in a theatrical way.
“You have to completely reconceive the story for whatever medium it’s in.”
Convening every day at Willis’ house, the composing trio used 17 networked Macintosh computers, which helped construct orchestrations, with household items such as eggbeaters and sandpaper for rhythmic ideas. Bray refers to their creative process as “the Vulcan mind-meld,” and the standards were often exacting.
“We always said this was the toughest room in town,” Willis recalls. “For a melody or a string line or a lyric to get past this room, by the time all three of us liked it, we were really proud of it. There was no settling through the whole thing.”
They did find, however, that things got even tougher when their partners on the theater end got ahold of the music. “Even after getting very positive audience and cast response, that didn’t stop the producers from helping us to see we had a great deal of work to do,” Bray says, especially after evaluating workshops in New York or Chicago (where LaChanze, the Tony-winning star of the Broadway production, was discovered) and a summer 2004 run at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre before opening on Broadway on Dec. 1, 2005.
“They’d say, ‘Guys, just because the audience is clapping wildly doesn’t mean the show is any good,’” Bray remembers. “The lessons for us were in the area of how to tell the story with lyrics, how to move the story along. In the beginning we were like, ‘What do you mean we can’t just repeat the chorus? It works in pop music!’”
But Willis says that coming from outside the theater world helped the collaborators cope with those criticisms.
“I think we were too naive to understand the pressure,” she explains. We felt a huge responsibility, and it was a massive task. But as often as we got stuck, we were so driven by the purpose of the whole thing that it just added a level of excitement that, for me in songwriting, is rare to get to.
“So our naivete served us really well, ‘cause we had nerves of steel.”
There was, of course, a happy ending. Heralded by co-producer and patron Oprah Winfrey, “The Color Purple” has grossed more than $103 million so far and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards.
The show’s original cast album was nominated for a Grammy, and Willis, Bray and Russell took home an Outstanding New Score trophy at the Outer Critics Circle Awards. The members of the music team have returned to their respective endeavors, but theater is now on all of their radars. “I still completely adore pop music,” Bray says, “but there’s nothing like the experience of working with actors and being part of this army of creative intent. I can’t wait to do it again.”
In fact, he adds, “there’s probably three different musicals I’m talking to people about.”
Willis, meanwhile, is ensconced in an interactive project called Bubbles & Cheesecake that can be found at her alleewillis.com Web site. But she won’t rule out another musical in her future, either.
“Definitely people are always asking,” Willis says, “but I rarely do the same thing twice in a row. I’m constantly reinventing myself. So the answer is yes, but no— not what you would expect to hear from someone involved in theater for a living.”
“The Color Purple” opens Tuesday (May 20) and runs through June 1 at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $39.50-$75. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com.
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