A Look Back at the Original Broadway Company of The Color Purple | Playbill

Special Features A Look Back at the Original Broadway Company of The Color Purple

Did you know both Celie understudies were nominated for Tony Awards in 2022?

LaChanze in The Color Purple Paul Kolnik

While everyone is taking in the new film adaptation of the musical The Color Purple this week, we thought we'd take a look back at the original Broadway cast and check in on where some of them are now. 

The Color Purple, based on the novel by Alice Walker, officially opened on Broadway December 1, 2005 after beginning previews November 1 at the 1,700-seat Broadway Theatre. The stage musical featured a book by Marsha Norman and a score by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. It ran until February 24, 2008, playing 30 preview performances and 910 regular performances.

It also featured a stellar cast...most of them relatively new to the Broadway stage in 2005. And their performances arguably laid the foundation for this newest film (they even enjoyed a standing ovation at a recent screening of The Color Purple film in New York).

In 2005, Broadway audiences had already met LaChanze, who starred as Celie. She'd made her stage debut in 1986 in the ensemble of Uptown...It's Hot, and in 1991 earned her first Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical as TiMoune in Once on This Island. She even had a turn as Sarah in Ragtime (replacing Audra McDonald) and Marta in the 2005 revival of Company (alongside Boyd Gaines, Jane Krakowski, Debra Monk, Charlotte d'Amboise, and Danny Burstein). 

But The Color Purple was a star turn for LaChanze, garnering not only rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, but also her first Tony Award. Of the show's 10 nominations, her Best Actress award was its only win. LaChanze has since added two additional trophies to her shelf, both in 2023 as a producer of Kimberly Akimbo and Topdog/Underdog

Recently, LaChanze wrote on social media that she helped write Celie's torch song, "I'm Here": "I do want my royalty fee for the lyrics I added to 'I'm Here.'" LaChanze told Time magazine recently that the show's composers had asked her to describe Celie's feelings during her pivotal moment in the show where she decides to finally love herself.

“I said, ‘I wanna flirt with somebody, I know I got my sister. She can't be with me. But she's still my sister, and I know she loves me and my children,’” she recalled telling The Color Purple team. “I didn’t put it together in the way they did, but my feelings, my emotions, and my thoughts about what I was experiencing as the actor embodying Celie they put in the song. So I like to say I helped write the song.”

Jeannette Bayardelle in Girl From The North Country and Kenita R. Miller in for colored girls... Matthew Murphy / Marc J. Franklin

The Color Purple also marked the Broadway debuts for Jeannette Bayardelle and Kenita R. Miller. Both performers would go on to receive Tony nominations in 2022—Bayardelle for her work in Girl From the North Country, and Miller for for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Bayardelle and Miller began as understudies for LaChanze as Celie, but they played the role for three months each following LaChanze's departure. After that, American Idol Fantasia Barrino made her Broadway debut as Celie in 2007 (she also plays Celie in the newest film).

Broadway's first Shug Avery was Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, an R&B singer who had previously been a backup vocalist for big acts like Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez. She stayed with the Broadway production for almost its entire run, leaving just three weeks shy of the show's closing. The Color Purple remains her only Broadway credit. She released a studio album of her music in 2010 and is now ushering in the next generation of vocal performers as a university music professor. 

Felicia P. Fields originated the role of Sofia on Broadway. The production was her Broadway debut, and she stayed in the role for the entire run. The Chicago native has since returned to the Windy City where she remains a working actor. In 2022, she premiered her own show, Pearl's Rollin' With the Blues, An Evening With Felicia P. Fields. 

Both Withers-Mendes and Fields received Tony nominations in the Best Featured Actress in a Musical category for their performances in The Color Purple.

Brandon Victor Dixon and Felicia P. Fields in The Color Purple Paul Kolnik

If you don't know the name Kingsley Leggs (although we think you do), you for sure know his voice. The booming bass of the original Mister on Broadway was most recently heard Off-Broadway as Audrey II in the revival of Little Shop of Horrors. That's Leggs on the cast recording bellowing "Feed Me, Seymour." His other Broadway credits include Sister Act and Pretty Woman.

The Color Purple was also the Broadway debut for a young Brandon Victor Dixon. He earned his first Tony nomination for his role as Harpo. His second nomination came in 2016 for Shuffle Along. He's had a turn as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and appeared in the televised productions of Rent and Jesus Christ Superstar. Though casting has not been announced yet, we're waiting to see if he'll continue with the Alicia Keys musical Hell's Kitchen when it transfers to Broadway this spring from its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater. 

Another name that pops out of that original cast list of The Color Purple is Renée Elise Goldsberry. She'd previously made her Broadway debut as Nala in The Lion King, but The Color Purple marked her first time originating a role, Celie's sister Nettie. Goldsberry would, of course, go on to win a Tony for originating another strong woman: Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton. Goldsberry is now the lead in her own TV show: Girls5Eva, which will premiere its third season on Netflix in 2024.

Zipporah G. Gatling, LaChanze, Leon G. Thomas Ill, and Renée Elise Goldsberry in The Color Purple Paul Kolnik

The original Broadway cast of The Color Purple also included Krisha Marcano, James Brown III, LaTrisa A. Coleman, Carol Dennis, Anika Ellis, Doug Eskew, Zipporah G. Gatling, Charles Gray, James Harkness, Francesca Harper, Kimberly Ann Harris, Chantylla Johnson, Grasan Kingsberry, J. C. Montgomery, Lou Myers, Angela Robinson, Bahiyah Sayyed Gaines, Nathaniel Stampley, Jamal Story, Leon G. Thomas III, Maia Nkenge Wilson, and Virginia Ann Woodruff.

A Broadway revival opened December 10, 2015 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre under the direction of John Doyle. It starred Cynthia Erivo as Celie, who also earned a Tony Award for her performance in the lead role. Danielle Brooks was Sofia and Jennifer Hudson was Shug Avery. Brooks reprises her role in the film. 

READ: Danielle Brooks Wants Broadway to Be For Everyone, On Stage and Off

The film adaptation opened in theatres nationwide December 25. It stars Broadway Color Purple alums Fantasia Barrino as Celie and Brooks as Sofia, along with Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery, Corey Hawkins as Harpo, H.E.R. as Squeak, Halle Bailey as Young Nettie, Tony nominee Colman Domingo as Mister, Broadway The Lion King alum Phylicia Pearl Mpasi as Young Celie, Grammy winners Jon Batiste as Grady and Ciara as Adult Nettie, Tony winner David Alan Grier as Reverend Avery, Aunjanue Ellis as Celie and Nettie's mother, Elizabeth Marvel as Miss Millie, Louis Gossett, Jr. as Ol' Mister. Read reviews for the film here.

Take a look through production photos of the original 2005 Broadway run below.

Look Back At The Original Broadway Cast of The Color Purple

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