Time Travel Theatre: Watch PURLIE from 1970 – and a Bonus!

Melba Moore and Cleavon Little in the Broadway production of PURLIE, 1970

Its time to travel back to 1970 to enjoy one of the hits of that year. PURLIE is a musical version of Ossie Davis’ play PURLIE VICTORIOUS which was written and produced in 1961 (and later made into the 1963 film GONE ARE THE DAYS!). This musical version debuted in 1970, and although Davis had no hand in writing the musical, the co-authors felt that he must have credit, so much of the plot was taken from the original.

Opening at the Broadway Theatre on March 15th, PURLIE subsequently transferred to the Winter Garden and then to the ANTA Playhouse before concluding its run of 688 performances. The book is by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose, and Peter Udell, with lyrics by Udell and music by Gary Geld (someone about whom very little is known about, it appears).

Set in America’s Deep South, when Jim Crow laws still were in effect in the American South, PURLIE centres on the dynamic traveling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, who returns to his small Georgia town hoping to save the community’s church, entitled Big Bethel, as well as to free the cotton pickers who work on oppressive Ol’ Cap’n Cotchipee’s plantation. With the assistance of Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, Purlie hopes to pry loose from Cotchipee an inheritance due his long-lost cousin and use the money to achieve his goals. Also playing a part in Purlie’s scheme is Cotchipee’s son Charlie, who ultimately proves to be far more fair-minded than his Simon Legree–like father and who saves the church from destruction with an act of defiance that has dire consequences for the tyrannical Cap’n.

The show was very well-received by critics and audiences, as well as the awards panels. Directed by Philip Rose and choreographed by Louis Johnson, they both were Tony Award nominated. Cleavon Little (playing the title character) won both the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. Melba Moore made hers a triple, winning the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of Lutiebelle, also winning the Drama Desk Award as well as the Theatre World Award.

Interestingly, a (possibly over-speedy?) revival at the end of 1972 failed after just a handful of performances.

The (below) recorded version we can enjoy here was produced in 1981 and lasts approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes. Produced for Showtime, it stars several of the Broadway cast including Robert Guillaume (who took over from lead Cleavon Little during the original Broadway run) and Melba Moore.

Thanks to YouTube poster David Weisberg for posting this.


Here is an excerpt from the 1970 Tony award ceremony with two numbers from the original production of PURLIE and the Tony winners from the show, Cleavon Little (yes, he of later BLAZING SADDLES fame) and Melba Moore (yes, she of later international recording successes fame).

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