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Oprah comes full circle

The talk show host — and Broadway producer— talks to Ann Curry about success, God, and how 'The Color Purple' changed her life.

Oprah Winfrey stops traffic wherever she goes, but few really know what it took to get her to this point, celebrated, as she walked down Broadway just a few months ago escorted by David Letterman after appearing on his show.  This to her coming full circle, to what launched her on the road to success in the first place. Because Oprah believes she is what she is because of a single, inspiring, story.

Oprah Winfrey: For sure, “The Color Purple” changed my life.

She's now producing the musical version of the story on Broadway. And just this week, “The Color Purple” was nominated for 11 Tony awards, including best musical.

It's clear Oprah is taking Broadway by storm.

Oprah's deep ties to “The Color Purple” began in the early 80s. She was a 28-year-old local talk show host working in Baltimore and hiding a dark secret, when one day, she happened upon something in the newspaper:

Winfrey: I read a review of “The Color Purple.”  I had then decided to get up in my pajamas and go the B. Dalton bookstore in the mall. I finished reading it that day.  I went back to the bookstore that evening and got every “Color Purple” book that was in the bookstore. And I passed them out in the newsroom in Baltimore to everybody that I knew and considered a friend. 

The book, by Alice Walker, tells the story of Celie, a poor, black child in the rural South, who  is sexually abused by a family member,  and forced to marry a man who beats her -- the story is told through her letters to God. 

Winfrey: I so related to the story. The inspiration in Celie's life. And you know, the hope.  That I talked about “The Color Purple” as though I were in it. 

Even after she moved to Chicago a few years later to host a local talk show, Orah tried to get everyone to read the book.

Winfrey: I would go to in Chicago every beauty salon.  , I would pass out the books to women under the dryers.  I used to walk home from work with a backpack.  No, serious. And I would pass out the books to anybody. I'd say, have you read “The Color Purple”?Ann Curry, Dateline anchor: Strangers?Winfrey: Strangers.  I'm telling you, I was completely obsessed with it.  Curry: They must have thought you were a bit--Winfrey: Nuts.Curry: Touched.Winfrey: They'd say, “Here she comes. Here she comes, that girl with the ‘Color Purple’ story.” 

Oprah was so obsessed she says because in Celie, she saw herself.

Winfrey: When I first read it, my life felt like Celie's story.Curry: And that's why the story, this book would not let you go… something about Celie herself seized you. You grew up poor in the South in Mississippi.Winfrey:   Uh-huh (affirms).  Uh-huh (affirms).  And, abused.Curry: And, abused.Winfrey: Sexually abused.  And, so the fact that the first letter is about, "Dear God, I'm 14 years old--" I've been right there.Curry: “Can you explain to me what's happening to me?”  That's how you felt?Winfrey: Yeah.Curry: Did you wonder what was happening to you?Winfrey:   Well, let me just tell you.  When I read the first line of Alice Walker's book “The Color Purple,” I remember sitting home and I think it took my breath away literally.  You know, people use that phrase.  But, I could not breathe. So, after reading the first passage, the first letter, I remember closing the book. I thought this was supposed to be a happy interview.  But, I remember closing the book and weeping, because my God, this is my story.  This is my story.  Somebody knows how I felt.  And at the time I read “The Color Purple” I had not told anybody that I'd been sexually abused.  So, it was like Celie knew and Alice Walker knew. Oh, I'm a mess. Ann, stop this.  I'm a mess.  No.  Celie knew and Alice Walker also understood.  And, I had not spoken to anybody about it.So, to see it written and to have the feelings on the page that were also my feelings was-- the earth moved for me for that, because you say, "Somebody knows.  Somebody else knows what this is like."Curry: "I'm not alone."Winfrey: Yeah. 

That moment, Oprah says, was a turning point in her life, allowing her to face what began when she was 9 years old -- abused she says by a cousin then other family members and their friends.  

Years later, Oprah heard that the story that so closely mirrored her own was being made into a movie and she was willing to do anything to be a part of it-- even work as a member of the crew.

Winfrey: So, when I heard that they were doing a movie, I had made a decision that I was going to find a way to get on the`set of that movie. And I started praying for it.  Literally like praying for it.

Praying for what seemed impossible: Oprah didn't know anyone in Hollywood and hadn't acted before. But as chance would have it, on a trip to Chicago, the legendary producer Quincy Jones saw Oprah on TV and he happened to be one of the producers of the movie. 

Quincy Jones, movie producer: When I first saw Oprah in Chicago, on Chicago AM, I didn't know who she was. I said "That's Sophie.  I don't know who it is, but it's Sophie.  If she can act, then it's really Sophie."  

Even though Oprah had never acted before, Quincy Jones arranged for her to audition for the role of Celie's  strong-willed daughter-in-law. It was more than she had even prayed for -- a real part in the movie.

Jones: She tore it up. It came flowing out - just rolling out of her everything. Every mood, kaleidoscopic characterization and everything else just came out.  And it was improvised.

But after the audition, Oprah heard nothing for months, and blamed her weight.

Winfrey: I can't believe that I haven't heard anything. Because how did this happen to me? I'm devastated.  So it's one of those, “Oh, my God, I cannot believe I've come this close.  I go away to a fat farm because I think it's because I'm fat, they hated me.  It's finally caught up to me.  I knew I should have lost weight.  I hate myself.”  The whole thing.Curry: Hate yourself?Winfrey: Hate myself.  Hate—Curry: So you're saying-- you're not just talking “I'm really disappointed.”Winfrey: No.Curry: You're saying--Winfrey: “I hate myself because all this time, I knew the weight was gonna catch up to me. I want to lose fifty pounds in two weeks,” you know.And I realized at that time that my obsession had gotten the best of me. I'd never wanted anything more than I wanted to be in “The Color Purple.” Never.  And it was life changing for me because I decided I had to let it go. So I go out on the track by myself.  It's cold.  It's raining.  I'm alone running around the track.  And I start asking “God, dear God, just like Celie. Please help me to let it go so that I can move on with my life.”  And I start singing, “I surrender all.  I surrender all.”

But just when Oprah was letting go, someone else was holding on -- on the phone. It was the movie's director, Steven Spielberg. 

Winfrey: He says, “First of all, what are you doing?  I hear you're at a fat farm.”  No, [I say] “it's a health retreat.”  (Laughs) It's a health retreat.  He says, “If you lose a pound, you will possibly lose this part. I'd like to see you in my office tomorrow.”

Oprah Winfrey had won the opportunity of a lifetime -  a part in a major motion picture.  But now feared losing it because, ironically she might not weigh enough.

Winfrey: And I pack my bags and I leave this health retreat.  And I go to the first Dairy Queen on my way home, just in case I lost a pound.  And the reason it was life changing for me is because in that moment of surrender, I realized that when you've done everything that you can do, when you've given it the best that you know how, you surrender it to that which is greater than yourself.You survive everything.  And when you make peace with that, that is when you open up the space for what is to come to you, to come. And that lesson has changed me forever. “The Color Purple” changed me because it was the first time that I knew what love was.  It really was the first time I knew what love was.  Stop....  (tearing up)

It was on the set of the movie that Oprah began to dream of her future life.

Winfrey:  I'd sit on the set with Alice Walker and Quincy Jones.  I would come to watch them work because I just thought, “This is what love is.” You want to be in the place where you love your work.  You want to feel that every day...

In the story, Celie discovers she can love herself, even after all the bad things that happened to her.   She stops running and faces down her fears.  And she becomes an independent businesswoman.  

In real life, Oprah became a woman who is not afraid to reveal her weaknesses  -- to dream big -- and become one of the most successful businesswomen in America.

Winfrey: Well, it what I learned in “The Color Purple” is this: God can dream of the good dream for you than you can ever dream for yourself.  This is what “The Color Purple” taught me.

At the time she won her dream role, Oprah's TV career was beginning to soar. But with a hit TV show, her bosses pressured her not to take time off to make the film. 

Winfrey: “I will do anything.” I said, “I will sacrifice.  I will never take another vacation for as long as I work here.”

Oprah didn't want someone else controlling her life ever again. So Oprah boldly decided she'd have to become her own boss.

Winfrey: And I learned from that experience, you never want to be in a position again where you can't do what your heart desires for you to do.  And it is because of “The Color Purple” that I made the decision I will now own my own show.  So never again will I ever be told what I can and can not do.  So, it was life changing in, oh--Curry: So many ways.Winfrey: So many ways.  So many ways.Curry: But almost when you say these things--Winfrey: Yeah. It was the first time I learned what love is.  It's when I learned that I'm not going to let somebody prevent me from doing what I want to do.  This is the voice of Celie. My little hair is rising on my head because that's the first time I ever made that connection.  I have to put my hair down because it's rising on my head.  That is exactly Celie's story.

It’s a story that would net Oprah an academy award nomination and 20 years later, would make a dramatic return to her life. 

Winfrey: And that's why it is, you know, sitting here on this [Broadway] stage, it is a full circle moment for me.

With more than $43 million in total ticket sales so far, for “The Color Purple,” Oprah Winfrey can now add  “successful Broadway producer” to her credits and she's bringing a whole new audience to Broadway.

Curry: What type of reaction are you getting? Winfrey: People come with their daughters, they come with their friends, they bring, listen busloads of people I know of a church that had three busloads of people coming. 

What is amazing is that there black people, white people, rich people.

Curry: And they're filling these seats.

It’s a remarkable turn of events for a musical that took 8 years to come to life. It was producer Scott Sanders, who  decided to bring “The Color Purple” to Broadway.

Scott Sanders, producer: I i felt that there is a part of Celie in all of us and I felt that her story had music in its soul.

At first glance, "The Color Purple" may not seem like obvious material for a musical. It's about sexual abuse, domestic vilence, racism, homosexuality, and another rarity in Broadway: it would require an all-black cast.

The Color Purple Company
The Color Purple CompanyPaul Kolnik

It was an uphill battle to turn the story into a musical.

The first hurdle to overcome was the woman who wrote it — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker.

Sanders: I said "I'd love to turn the Color Purple into a musical."  And I think she looked at me like I had three heads.  She said, “What exactly do you mean by that?”Curry: You write a wonderful book.  It becomes a powerful movie.  And then somebody calls you up and says "We ought to make this thing a musical."  You must have been shocked. A musical?Alice Walker, author: I was amused.Sanders: It didn't feel like that.Walker: Well, you weren't there when I was amused -- because I just didn't see it.     

Still, she agreed, and when the musical went into production. Scott sanders invited the editors of Oprah's magazine to a rehearsal.  They liked what they saw and told their boss.

Sanders: My cell phone rang on a Saturday morning “Hi Scott, it's Oprah Winfrey".  And I almost dropped the phone. She said "You know, how can I help?" 

Oprah signed on as one of the producers. She decided to surprise the cast.  It was an incredible break...

Felicia Fields, cast member: First of all, I don't mean no disrespect.  But Oprah's kind of crazy.  (laughter).  She likes to surprise everybody.LaChanze, cast member: It was an overwhelming emotional experience for every single person in that room.

Oprah now has given us just that boost of recognition nationally, internationally and-- for me, that was such a comfort and a joy to know that I was a part of something that was just so huge and so special.

In November of last year, Oprah featured the cast on her show. More than 10 million viewers saw the program.

Sanders: By midnight that night, the Telecharge system had blown up. We sold a million dollars worth of tickets in that day. Curry: So you're saying that her involvement has been like what?Walker: A blessing. Oprah and I come from a part of the country where we understand certain realities. She's not just telling you about something as if she's an observer.  She has lived a life that is as deep and as painful and as joyful and as depthful as any of the characters.  And that's why she I think really captures the imagination of people.

People from all over the country, who've never before been to a Broadway show, are buying tickets and packing the  house night after night.

And something unprecedented is happening.  Record numbers of African-Americans are in attendance, creating a rarity on Broadway:  multi-racial audiences. 

Kingsley Leggs, cast member: It's their family.  It's their cousins, their uncles, their brothers. So I think in that way, yeah, this show resonates unbelievably to the African-American audience.Elisabeth Withers-Mendes, cast member:  This story is a heart story.  It's not a black story, it's not a white story.  It's a story that people can identify with.

It's more evidence of Oprah's touch. As is the armful of Tony awards the musical was nominated for this week.

Curry: A Tony, you want one? Winfrey: Well, a Tony would be nice. A Tony would be nice.Curry: More than nice.Winfrey: A Tony would be really great for the cast. I think the cast deserves a Tony. If it gets a Tony, it certainly had nothing to do with me.

But Oprah does acknowledge that the crowd has come in part because of her.

Curry: Why do you think you have this power to bring people to where they don't normally go?Winfrey: Well, I think this, Ann -- It's just that after 20 years on the air, I really try to only speak for and about that which is the truth for me. When I do step out for you, it's because I believe it in every fiber of my being.

It's because I was benefited, and I wanna share that with you. And, that is just who I am.

She's also a woman with a deep faith in God.

Curry: In the play, Celie feels forsaken.  She says, "God is just another man." Did you feel forsaken ever by God?Winfrey: No.  No.  No One of the reasons I related to the story so much on the first time reading it is because I have always prayed and spoken to God. Curry: You talk to God still today?Winfrey: I still-- oh, please, yeah.  Uh-huh (affirms).Curry:  Once a week?Winfrey: No.  Not once a week.  This is-- this is--Curry: Daily?Winfrey: Oh, Ann.  I live in the space where God is. There is no question that that is why I am where I am, and why I have had the success that I've had, is because I allow myself to be guided by that which is greater than myself-- than my personality.  That's the truth.  That's the truth.Curry: Is that the only thing that you would say is the reason for your great success?Winfrey: Uh-huh (affirms).  Uh-huh (affirms).Curry: It is?Winfrey: Uh-huh (affirms).  Uh-huh (affirms).  Uh-huh. Because, I am doing the work that my soul came to do.

That work includes donating millions of her own money to help others, clothing children in South Africa, building homes after the devastation of Katrina, and taking on important issues like education and racism.

And Oprah Winfrey says even after 20 years at the top, a show watched by 49 million viewers a week, and a personal fortune estimated at $1.3 billion, she's not slowing down anytime soon.

Curry: Why don't you just put your feet up?     Winfrey: Well, some days, Ann, I do just want to take a rest.  Gosh, some days I get so tired, exhausted. I don't put my feet up because years ago, I went through this whole phase of going back into what it really meant to be a slave in this country, I realized I did not have the right to ever be tired. There are so many people who've come before me who deserved to be tired.  Who didn't have the opportunities, who didn't have the access, who didn't have the money, who didn't have the influence, who didn't have the voice.

And Oprah still wants her voice to be heard.

Winfrey:  I don't put my feet up because the goal wasn't to make a lot of money.  The goal was to be used for a calling greater than I know. And every day, when you're on the air, you affect people that you don't even know. There's a supreme moment -- when you realize, “Oh, this is what it was for. The whole television show thing, that was about the foundation for it.” Because look at the society we live in. Nobody listens to you unless you have some bling, some money, some clout, some access.  And so, that's what that was for.  It was to put me in a position where I could be heard for the ultimate voice of what really matters.  And I think there's yet to come.  I really do.Curry: What is it that you want to feel?Winfrey: I feel that I am in the best place for myself now.  And yet, the best is yet to come.  Oh, I really do believe that.  I do feel that there is something stirring, you know, something's going on with me that is getting more focused and more headed to the-- what is it-- supreme moment of destiny. Curry: You haven't gotten there yet?Winfrey: No.  I'm just beginning.