It was a publicist’s dream. On the February 22 episode of “American Idol,” the ratings juggernaut routinely watched by upward of 30 million viewers, Fantasia Barrino, the show’s season-three winner, ambled onstage to make a “special announcement”: Oprah Winfrey had tapped her to star in the Broadway production of “The Color Purple.”
Uh, excuse me? Broadway?
True, the Great White Way had already established itself as a dumping ground for tossed “American Idol” finalists looking for work — Constantine Maroulis in “The Wedding Singer”! Diana DeGarmo in “Hairspray”!
But Fantasia? This was different. She was the first “Idol” winner who, instead of touring to promote her new album, decided to hunker down in New York and headline a Broadway show (see “Fantasia Rehearses ’The Color Purple’ — With Strep Throat And Jokes Galore” ). With her first two record outings garnering nowhere near Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood status (2004’s Free Yourself sold less than 2 million copies; while her current album, Fantasia, currently sits at #126 on the Billboard albums chart), one couldn’t help but wonder if the decision to do Broadway had a tinge of desperation to it. Was this the beginning of the end for a once-promising career?
“I thought she was going off to that pasture where all the Idols go,” said Keith Murphy, an editor at Vibe magazine. “She already has a platinum album, and now this is happening to her?”
With Fantasia’s music career not as successful as she might have hoped, Chaka Zulu, who manages Ludacris, thinks the idea of Broadway wasn’t so far-fetched. Opening herself up to a new audience — those who enjoy musicals — might be a very smart move.
“For someone with talent who enjoys stretching herself, this might be good for her at this point in her career,” Zulu said.
But the greatest surprise in the story of Fantasia going to Broadway might be just how well her performance in “The Color Purple” has been received.
First, the difficult-to-please New York Times gushed, calling her “pretty terrific” and “wholly convincing” in the role of Celie, the wayward Southern woman forced to fight for everything she has (see “Living ’Color': Fantasia Tells Oprah She’s Already Learned From Celie” ). According to reports, the box office took in $6 million in advance ticket sales before she even stepped onstage for the first time. There were numerous TV appearances, including a showstopping performance on the Tony Awards telecast.
The 23-year-old from North Carolina, who professed to never having seen a Broadway show before the producers of “The Color Purple” gave her tickets, was fast becoming a Broadway star.
“Of course she is going to sing well,” Murphy said. “People expect that. But what critics have been shocked by is her acting.”
Word came late last week that Fantasia has re-signed with “Purple,” meaning she’ll play Celie until January. New York’s Daily News reported that a new Broadway show was being written based on the life of nightclub legend Ada “Bricktop” Smith for Fantasia to star in.
“Fantasia showed that Broadway is not the graveyard for ’American Idol,’ ” Murphy said. “She blew that notion out of the water, basically. And I’m not a huge Fantasia fan, but I saw something special on that stage.”
Now, in a twist, Fantasia’s latest single, “When I See U,” has begun to take off (see “Fantasia Unleashes Her Inner Rock Star: ’This Time It’s My Own Vision’ “ ). For the past three weeks, it’s been #1 on Billboard’s R&B singles chart. It’s commanding a significant amount of radio play, and its video is on regular rotation on MTV. While Fantasia has been belting on Broadway eight times a week, her music career has resurged.
Now, says Zulu, she should combine the power of her two careers. He thinks she should tour once her Broadway tenure is complete, but in a different way than she would have before she stepped foot in Celie’s shoes. In other words, create a tour with a more theatrical flair.
“I would encourage her to put together a venture that reflects this new love she found,” he said.
Murphy agrees. “Her bread and butter is going to be her performing,” he said. “She’s probably going to do a song from ’The Color Purple’ on tour. She’s probably going to do standards from other shows.
“I think she could become a bulletproof artist without her album necessarily having to go triple-platinum or even platinum,” he continued. “You’re looking at an artist who now has the capability of growing old with her fans.”
As for Fantasia herself, she seems to be happily riding the wave. “I have learned so much as an actress and vocally from my run with ’The Color Purple,’ ” she said in a statement to MTV News. “The cast, crew and producers have been wonderful to work with and are all very supportive. I have the best of both worlds right now. I am very blessed.”