Happy Forty-Seventh, Purlie! By Peter Filichia
Musicals that take place in earlier eras tend to be specific about their time frames. Barnum said in its program “1835 to 1880.” Annie stated “Dec. 11–25, 1933” and even 1776 didn’t feel its title gave enough information, so it declared “May 8 through” – of course – “July 4th.”
The program for Purlie, however, simply disclosed “Not too long ago.”
Now the show’s time frame must be described as “Very long ago,” for Purlie celebrates its 47th anniversary on March 15th.
That we’re even talking about Purlie wouldn’t have been predicted when the show started rehearsals in January, 1970. It was, after all, African American-centric, and this was a time when black people rarely attended Broadway. When William Goldman wrote The Season, about the 1967–68 semester – two seasons before Purlie – he reported not one of New York’s million African Americans, could be found at a performance of Golden Rainbow.
Goldman did add that 11% of the audiences at Hello, Dolly! that season were African Americans, but we can assume that attendees came to see two legendary black stars: Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway, who headed an all-black cast. The African Americans certainly weren’t 11% of the audience when Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye or Betty Grable were on the scene.
Purlie would have lesser luminaries as its leads: Cleavon Little and Melba Moore, each of whom had done one Broadway show. Little had done little in film – two movies, one for which his name wasn’t even included in the end credits. On TV, he’d appeared in one episode of Another World and two of The Felony Squad.
Moore had done one film, but she, like Little, had been uncredited for it. Staunch theatergoers might have remembered her as one of the three black girls who sang “White Boys” in Hair, but that virtual cameo wouldn’t have been enough incentive for them to buy tickets to – what’s it called? – Purlie?
Besides, what’s an African-American show doing with a white composer (Gary Geld), white lyricist (Peter Udell) and white producer-director (Philip Rose)? The only African American on the writing team was Ossie Davis, who’d written the book with Rose and Udell. That was fitting, for he’d written the play on which Purlie was based: Purlie Victorious.
The comedy ran a respectable 261 performances but still lost money. Even a movie sale didn’t put the show in the – no pun intended (really!) – black because the undisclosed price was obviously small, given that the entire picture came in at $200,000. (This was in 1963 – the same year that Cleopatra cost $31 million.)
Now when a play is filmed, isn’t the title almost always retained because the brand from Broadway is a selling tool? And yet, Gone Are the Days was the title given the film. However, the DVD has returned to Purlie Victorious, which may just be because of the musical’s ultimate success.
But what was a “Purlie,” anyway? When I attended the final Saturday preview, I had never heard of Purlie Victorious, so when the curtain rose on a funeral service that had everyone singing about “the pearly gates,” I assumed that Purlie was an intended misspelling of that adjective.
No. Purlie Victorious are the first two names of Purlie Victorious Judson, a forward-looking preacher who presides over that funeral of Ol’ Cap’n Stonewall Jackson Cotchipee, a bigoted Georgia plantation owner. “He did us a service,” Purlie said of him, before quipping: “Dying.”
“Walk Him Up the Stairs” was joyously sung by thirty African Americans – and one white man. Here was one of those times when a song is so good that it distracts you from noticing a flaw: “Why would a funeral of a white man who was a pillar of his community have only one white man in attendance – that being Charlie, his one and only child? More to the point, why would thirty African Americans show up when they justifiably hated Ol’ Cap’n?”
As John Adams says in 1776, “Economy, always economy.” Thirty-two performers meant quite a payroll and thirty black actors would start the show with a jolt.
A flashback had us meet Purlie’s friend Lutiebelle, who thought that his home was “nice.” His response? “It’ll never be until I own it.” He planned to do just that after Ol’ Cap’n paid the $500 he owed Purlie’s relative Beatrice, who – unknown to the Capn’ – has died. Purlie thinks that Lutiebelle can pass for her.
This was no standard-issue clergyman, as Purlie was the first to admit in “New-Fangled Preacher Man,” a nice twangy tune. Never mind “that glorious life on the great other side.” What about today? And what about that yesterday when Ol’ Cap’n bullwhipped a teenaged Purlie? He doesn’t jest at scars that certainly felt each wound.
Not everyone shared Purlie’s hatred. Ol’ Cap’n had put Purlie’s brother Gitlow in charge of the sharecroppers. That his weekly paycheck is fatter than anyone else’s, is enough to deny his own people to what they’re entitled. In a world of Uncle Toms, Gitlow was a Great-Uncle Tom. But, as Gitlow says, there’s more than one way of – and here comes the song – “Skinnin’ a Cat,” which Geld gave a wonderfully funky melody. It was sung by another unknown: Sherman Hemsley.
But not for long. In five years, Hemsley would begin a ten-year TV run with The Jeffersons. When Purlie was filmed for cable on July 16, 1981, Robert Guillaume, now Purlie, and Melba Moore got strong entrance applause, but the attendees gave an even warmer welcome to Hemsley whom they’d come to know in some or all of his 253 episodes.
Purlie may simply be employing Lutiebelle, but she’s got much stronger feelings for him as she sang in the show’s title tune to Missy, Purlie’s sister-in-law (Novella Nelson). Here might very well be the moment that we all realized that Purlie was en route to a fine score, for it was the fourth song in a row that was fun and catchy.
Finally we met Ol’ Cap’n (John Heffernan) and he turned out to be worse than Purlie had described him. He actually said that his workers should be fed “after the horses and cattle.” When Charlie said that the food was spoiled, rotten, tainted “and a little wormy,” Ol’ Capn’s response was to sell it to the African-Americans.
(And you know he didn’t use the term “African Americans.”)
Purlie insists to Lutiebelle that the bigger they are – here’s another good song – “The Harder They Fall.” To bring another cliché into the mix, easier said than done. When Lutiebelle signed the legal documents, she wrote her own name instead of Beatrice’s. She and Purlie avoided jail time because Idella (Helen Martin) Ol’ Capn’s longtime maid, said she’d quit if he prosecuted. Ol’ Cap’n knew he needed her to keep things humming.
Despite the near-brush with the law, Purlie remained as steadfast as Mayer Rothschild who also wanted money and land not only for himself, but also so he could liberate his people. Some of this came through in “Down Home,” which he sang with Missy.
However, when Ol’ Cap’n sexually harassed Lutiebelle, Purlie sprang into action. He soon returned with Ol’ Cap’n’s bullwhip and $500. Ol’ Cap’n was dead, but Purlie didn’t kill him. Charlie had given him the whip and the money – and when Ol’ Capn’ learned that, that’s what gave him a fatal heart attack.
Purlie couldn’t afford an out-of-town run, so it began New York previews on February 19, 1970 with no fanfare and little advance sale. As Melba Moore tells the story, people just kept coming up to Geld and Udell to say that they just had to give her another song. They took the suggestion and delivered “I Got Love,” the barnburner that became the show’s most noted song. (It obviously went in very late, for my preview Playbill didn’t even have it listed.)
In less than a month, all three major New York theater critics bestowed their approval. One must wonder, though, how Clive Barnes of the Times, John Chapman of the News and Richard Watts, Jr. of the Post all reacted the day after opening when they saw that each of them had said the same thing: “Purlie is victorious!”
Two months to the day after that unassuming first preview, both Little and Moore won Tony Awards. That spurred a 688-performance run, making it Broadway’s longest-running black-themed musical.
It wouldn’t have happened without those new-to-Broadway African-American audiences. Since then, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Black and Blue, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Don’t Bother Me – I Can’t Cope, The Color Purple, Dreamgirls, The Lion King, Motown, Raisin, The Wiz and Bring in ‘Da Noise. Bring in ‘Da Funk have surpassed Purlie’s then-impressive run. Musicals that feature black characters as an integral part of the plot – Big River, Hairspray, Memphis and Ragtime – have also passed its performance mark. They all owe some thanks to Purlie, which might not have been worth its weight in platinum – but was at least pearly.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.