Monday, July 22, 2024

Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ Stage Musical Previewed in Minneapolis for Fans

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“I’m trying to get you hyped and excited,” exclaimed theater director Lileana Blain-Cruz at the Minnesota State Theatre in Minneapolis on Saturday (June 22). “I’m trying to get a motorcycle on stage!”

Hot off directing a visually extravagant, emotionally stirring production of John Adams’ El Niño at the New York Metropolitan Opera (she’s the resident director at Lincoln Center Theater), Blain-Cruz has proven she’s adept at helming massive, complicated productions. But in spring 2025 at the State Theatre, she’s facing an audience even more passionate and exacting than New York City theater critics – Prince fans.

On Saturday, a theater full of the “purple fam” were treated to the first public preview of an upcoming stage musical adaptation of Prince’s Purple Rain film as part of the five-day Celebration 2024 event in the Purple One’s hometown. And with Blain-Cruz – who repeatedly hopped out of her chair and solicited audience feedback while flaunting a flashy purple blazer – directing, it’s clear this stage musical has an advocate who can match the enthusiasm of Jerome Benton hyping up Morris Day during a performance by The Time.

Joining Blain-Cruz during the preview – a panel discussion that boasted a work-in-progress look at three of the musical’s stage numbers – were book writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, fresh off a Tony win for Appropriate; music director Jason Michael Webb, whose credits include the Broadway hit MJ The Musical; and Bobby Z., who drums in The Revolution and recently joined the production as a music adviser alongside fellow Prince associate Morris Hayes. (Tony-winning producer Orin Wolf appeared at the tail-end of the hour-long panel, too.)

“This is not Hamilton,” joked Jacobs-Jenkins, who assured the audience of diehards that his book will draw on the 1984 film’s screenplay (written by Albert Magnoli and William Blinn) without radically reworking it. Even so, he said he intends to further develop the character of Apollonia and make some necessary pacing changes to fit a stage production: “A play is a play, and a movie is a movie.”

While the director is hellbent on getting that motorcycle on stage (she says the image of Prince “staring into her soul” on the Purple Rain bike is one of her earliest memories of the genius), she acknowledges some limitations of the medium. “I can’t get a Lake Minnetonka that isn’t actually Lake Minnetonka on stage,” she jested, while still promising to bring the “epic” nature of a Met Opera production “to something as sublime as Purple Rain.”

“It is an opera — it’s a tragedy and a triumph,” agreed Bobby Z. “I got to see Prince build a revolution from 1977 to the Parade album [in 1986].” Similar to many operas that have stood the test of time, Purple Rain comes complete with an unforgettable villain – Morris Day, Prince’s real-life friend and colleague who played a deliciously narcissistic version of himself in the 1984 film. For the world’s first musical preview of the Purple Rain musical, attendees of Celebration 2024 got to see performers portraying Day and Benton preen and camp it up in character before playing a solidly grooving version of The Time’s “Jungle Love” and “777-9311.” (Morris Day himself hit that same stage later on Saturday to perform an assortment of The Time classics and bust out some dance moves.)

“There only so many of these Black icons that we have,” mused Webb. “Working with the Michael [Jackson] legacy prepared me for the one I really wanted — which is this one.”

Explaining that he was looking to present some of the songs through a different lens, the multi-talented Webb brought out Rachel Webb to portray Apollonia and duet with him on “Take Me With U.” The song is bombastic and string-drenched on the album, but this teaser version – which started out in an elegant, stripped-down vein before working up to a full-band sound – demonstrated that these songs can soar in a variety of stylings (something hardcore Prince fans already well know).

Acknowledging that the soundtrack’s nine songs are not enough material for a Broadway musical, they also revealed that the Purple Rain stage musical will draw on Prince’s full catalog, including songs that didn’t even appear in the film. Case in point: Before the event wrapped, Rachel Webb returned to the stage with two others to perform “The Glamorous Life” as Vanity 6. While that Prince-penned song is certainly well-suited to the time period – it came out in 1984 and reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 that fall – it’s not a Vanity 6 number at all, but rather a hit performed by Sheila E.

But why not take some creative liberties? The team behind this production is openly gunning for a Broadway run after debuting Purple Rain in Minneapolis, so the bar is high. As long as the songs are a sonic and thematic match for the realm of Purple Rain, who cares whether a tune appeared in the film? Broadway is a tough market, and success is far from guaranteed for musicals based on the works of pop hitmakers (though that isn’t stopping plenty of artists from trying). Prince’s rich, rewarding catalog deserves a wide audience, so it only makes sense for the team behind this production to put their best high-heeled boot forward as they reimagine his magnum opus for the stage.



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