Can Oprah save publishing and Broadway? -- The talk show giant reaches out to her book club and ''The Color Purple''

By Gregory Kirschling
Updated September 30, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Only a few days into her 20th season on air (and two weeks since her extraordinary behind-the-scenes report from the Gulf Coast after Katrina), Oprah Winfrey is reasserting herself as a pop- culture tastemaker.

First, she announced that, after two years of endorsing dead authors like Steinbeck and Faulkner, her hugely influential Book Club would once again recommend contemporary books, starting with James Frey’s visceral 2003 addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. A few days later, she put her name (and $1 million-plus in coin) behind the new Broadway production of The Color Purple (opening Dec. 1), goosing interest in a show that had been fending off negative press.

Pieces went on to sell a monster 85,000 copies in just four days, a clear indicator that the book announcement was the biggest publishing news since Oprah quit recommending newer books in 2002. ”I think everyone missed it,” says Simon & Schuster executive vice president/publisher David Rosenthal. ”There was a hole in our hearts about it. Certainly not in my time has there been a force like Oprah.” No one was more shocked than Frey. ”Hell, yeah,” he says, ”every author wants to be on Oprah. It’s a big deal.”

Can her imprimatur boost another underdog entertainment, the socially conscious Broadway musical? ”So many people know that she’s a great arbiter of quality, and I think her fans trust her in that,” says Scott Sanders, who’s producing what will now be called Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Color Purple. ”I think it’ll be interesting to see how that translates to Broadway, because this is her first foray into theater, but I think it’ll certainly help bring people into the theater that otherwise might not go. That’s great for The Color Purple, and that’s great for Broadway.” Proof: Ticket presales have more than doubled since Oprah signed on.

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