Brenda Russell Co-Writes The Songs For Hit Musical The Color Purple; Receives Tony Award Nomination

Brenda Russell
Brenda Russell

Brenda Russell has been a well known, highly regarded songwriter & artist for the past two decades. As a writer/artist, she has released eight albums (four on A&M Records), and she scored a major hit with her Grammy-nominated song ‘Piano In The Dark.’ As a songwriter, she has written classic hits for other artists, including ‘Get Here’ (for Oleta Adams), ‘If Only For One Night’ (Luther Vandross), and ‘Dinner With Gershwin’ (Donna Summer).

Now in 2006, Russell has a whole new career she can be excited about ‘ as a songwriter for a hit Broadway musical and soundtrack. Russell has devoted the past four-and-a-half years to co-writing (with hit pop writers Allee Willis and Stephen Bray) the songs for the new Broadway production of The Color Purple, which opened successfully in December (2005) at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan. Russell, Willis & Bray have since received Tony Award nominations for Best Original Score. The show is drawn from Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Steven Spielberg’s epic film (which starred Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey). In addition, the show’s Broadway cast album has just been released on Angel/EMI Records.

It was in early 2001 that Russell first heard about plans for the musical version of The Color Purple. ‘My friend and co-writer Allee Willis first told me about this project,’ recalled Russell. ‘I had been collaborating with Allee and Stephen Bray on an animated comedy called Fat Girl for the Oxygen cable network. Allee got a call from Scott Sanders, the producer of The Color Purple. Scott was looking to find a songwriting team who could write all the songs for the show — he was calling many prominent writers. He invited us to tryout for this great opportunity. So we got together and did a lot of research, and wrote two songs specifically for the show. Then we produced elaborate demos of these songs ‘ we had strings, horns, dobro, and even the sounds of foot-stomping and the clattering of pots and pans. We went all out.’

When Scott Sanders heard their demos, he loved them immediately, and soon after hired Russell, Willis & Bray for this coveted job. ‘Once we got the job, everything started from scratch,’ said Russell. ‘We were all novices when it came to writing for Broadway – we had to study and learn this medium. We went to theater workshops, we attended many shows, and watched DVDs of hit Broadway shows. And we closely studied the Alice Walker book, so we could become deeply familiar with the story and all of the characters.’

Russell discovered how much rewriting and meticulous detail was involved with writing songs for a major, theater production. ‘Writing for Broadway is the best lesson for songwriters. Rewriting is a serious part of writing for Broadway. In pop music, there isn’t as much rewriting. They either like the song or they don’t. But with writing for Broadway, a line could change for many different reasons. For example, characters are added or subtracted from a scene, and you have to make adjustments in the songs.’

Russell, Willis & Bray wrote a total of 40 songs for the project, of which 29 songs made it into the show. Many of the songs are full-length, while other songs are short, musical moments that fit certain spots in the show. These 29 cuts are featured on the Broadway cast album.

A scene from the Broadway production of The Color Purple.
A scene from the Broadway production of The Color Purple.

Then in the summer of 2003, the trio attended the first workshop for The Color Purple in Chicago, which consisted of the cast members acting and performing the songs of the first act. ‘This workshop was the first opportunity we had to rehearse our songs with the performers,” explained Russell. “We later did two more workshops, before the full show was eventually presented in Atlanta.’

The Color Purple debuted at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta for a six-week run in the fall of 2004, and the two-and-a-half hour show was a success. ‘The Atlanta shows went very well, and we broke the attendance record for the theatre,’ she said. ‘[Allee, Stephen and I] were there for the full run in Atlanta. We were constantly making changes (with the songs) that were necessary. We set up studio gear in a room at our hotel, and we did the rewrites there.’

Following the show’s six-week run in Atlanta, The Color Purple‘s creative team was happy that the show was well received, but they realized there were still many aspects of the show which needed to be worked on. ‘Everyone involved strived to improve the show. I learned that theater people have excellent standards. Gary Griffin is our director, and he has very high ideals.’

Russell, Willis & Bray returned to Los Angeles, where they continued to write additional songs and rewrite the existing material for another year. ‘Writing songs for a musical is not the easiest thing in the world,’ said Russell. ‘It takes time and energy, keeping a thread with each character, retaining the voice of each character. The whole process was very time-consuming and demanding for all four years. During this period, I did manage to record a new album (called Between the Sun and the Moon), but it almost killed me, trying to complete an album while constantly working on The Color Purple.’

It was around spring 2005, that The Color Purple musical received a major boost, when Quincy Jones became one of the show’s producers. Jones (who produced the movie version of The Color Purple and composed the film’s score) loved the new musical and songs, and he became an important part of The Color Purple team.

Then in late summer 2005, Russell, Willis & Bray moved to New York City for what turned out to be four months, to rehearse for the show’s expected opening on Broadway. ‘When we first started rehearsals, we didn’t even know yet what theatre we could get. We were worried that we wouldn’t get a theatre to open the show on schedule. Fortunately, we were able to get the Broadway Theatre, which is the second biggest theatre on Broadway (seating 1,700).’

Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray & Allee Willis.
Brenda Russell, Stephen Bray & Allee Willis.

During the fall, the show received another major boost, when Oprah Winfrey (who starred in the movie version) also became one of the show’s producers. She loved the musical and was a big supporter, promoting and endorsing The Color Purple on her widely-viewed TV show.

Finally in December 2005, the show opened on Broadway. The Color Purple has since played to packed houses, and has received excellent reviews. The New York Times called the show, ‘A bright odyssey of survival and triumph with a fairy-tale sense of wonder, Purple strikes sparks.’ Time magazine said, ‘It’s fabulous – a joyful, soaring Broadway musical.’

It was also in December that the Broadway cast album was recorded in Manhattan. Russell recalled, ‘the whole album was recorded in a studio in just one day! The soundtrack was produced by Jay Saks, who did a great job. A full orchestra was assembled, and the entire cast came in to record their vocals. They started arriving early in the morning, and by night it was done!’

Now with the Broadway success of the show, and the release of the cast album, Russell can take time out to reflect on her impressive journey into the world of Broadway and theater. ‘It was an extraordinary experience to write for Broadway — it’s an amazing medium. As a writer, I was able to channel my music into this broader vision; these songs didn’t have to conform to a radio format. We wrote blues, big band, gospel and other genres of music. It’s expanded me tremendously as a writer. ‘

‘I want to thank (producer) Scott Sanders. He took a chance with us, by hiring three pop songwriters who didn’t have Broadway experience. [The three of us] were blessed, and we believed that we could do it. And it’s been amazing for me (as a songwriter), to have a whole new career in this field.’

‘I also wanted to mention and thank Alice Walker,’ she said. ‘It was a great honor to meet with her and talk with her. She’s wonderful and wise. She said that the characters will come to us, to help us write the songs. I would open up creatively when I was at the piano, and just let the music come through me. I could relax and let things flow.’

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima