When it comes to movies that cry out for the Broadway musical treatment, Sister Act is hard to top. After all, the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg hit featured the comedian as a lounge singer trying to avoid getting whacked by a murderous boyfriend. Her hideout is a convent where she transforms a group of weak singing sisters into a potent choir. Talk about musical comedy potential.
In fact, Sister Act did make it to Broadway in 2011, and the touring version will start a two-week run on Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. But that journey from screen to stage? It wasn’t exactly a showbiz slam-dunk — not at first.
Scrapping the movie’s Motown sound and moving the action to Philadelphia in the late 1970s, the stage version has music by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Menken, the guy who wrote the music for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Little Shop of Horrors, Newsies and numerous other hits, infused his Sister Act score with Philly soul, pop and disco.
“I wanted to move it away from Motown, and I felt disco and ’70s pop styles could become a wonderful vocabulary for a musical,” Menken says. “I’m of the hippie generation. When disco came along, I thought, ‘What’s this? This isn’t going to last, is it?’ Then the Bee Gees, Elton John, the Rolling Stones got into it. Disco became the sound of the era. In retrospect, how rich that was.”
Figuring out the sound of Sister Act was critical for Menken, as it is with each show he does. Last season on Broadway, his score for Newsies won him the Tony Award, while the gospel-driven Leap of Faith opened and closed quickly.
“I don’t take on a project until I find an interesting or unique vocabulary for it. I didn’t want gospel in Sister Act, because I was already working on Leap of Faith when I agreed to do it,” he says.
Sister Act, with a book by former Cheers writers Bill and Cherie Steinkellner, started its journey toward Broadway at California’s Pasadena Playhouse in 2006, moving to Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2007. Peter Schneider developed and directed it, taking it to London’s West End in the summer of 2009, where it got decidedly mixed reviews. So just like its central character Deloris Van Cartier, the worldly singer who becomes a fake nun on the run, Sister Act got a makeover for Broadway.
Tony winner Jerry Zaks signed on to direct, and playwright Douglas Carter Beane gave the script a thorough overhaul. The show’s book, both men say, was the problem.
“I saw it in London, and I was appalled by the characterizations,” says Zaks, who has a proven knack for turning around flawed shows. “What I saw was useful for me as a point of departure. I didn’t care for it, for what the characters said, the way they said it, their intelligence level or their values. No Broadway audience would tolerate it. At the same time, the score was first-rate.”
Zaks reached out to Beane after recommendations from Nathan Lane, who will star in Beane’s new play The Nance on Broadway this spring, and Sister Act movie star-turned-producer Goldberg, who had been in Beane’s Broadway musical Xanadu. Beane agreed that the London version was rife with shorthand stereotyping and structural problems: “I was like, ‘There will be riots.’ It was very painful.”
So he signed on to write “additional book material,” though he jokes, “They had an impartial lawyer look at my script, and I think it had two lines left from the original.”
Unlike his years-long work on Xanadu, last season’s Lysistrata Jones and his new script for the upcoming Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Beane’s transformative work on Sister Act was quick. He started around Halloween of 2010, and the show opened in March 2011 on Broadway to reviews that were far more enthusiastic than the London ones.
“I was only in the convent for four or five months,” Beane says. “I barely had time to get the taste of the wafer out of my mouth.”
Menken thinks that Beane and Zaks made all the difference in giving Sister Act an ongoing life.
“What Doug did was masterful. Doug and Jerry brought the show to that whole Broadway level,” he says.
The appreciation goes both ways. Part of the reason Beane said “yes” to Sister Act was the Menken-Slater score. The playwright is from Pennsylvania, and he lived in Philadelphia in the late ’70s. So he knew instantly that the music was just right.
“The score and lyrics are incredibly sophisticated. You have these beautiful sentiments set to this danceable music,” he says.
Zaks calls the music and lyrics “smart and funny and true.” And he says of Menken, “his gift is writing a melody and a tune that gets you in the kishkes. He makes you feel it viscerally.”
On tour, Ta’Rea Campbell ( her first name rhymes with “Maria”) gets to play diva wannabe Deloris, a woman transformed by her unlikely friendship with the Mother Superior and her singing nuns. Campbell’s credits include The Book of Mormon and The Lion King, but Sister Act is giving her the chance to play a juicy comic lead. She was an understudy on the Zaks-directed Broadway production of Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors, so she found it “very cool” to work with him on creating her own version of Deloris in Sister Act.
“I’m a different person, so you always bring something new to a role,” she says. “Jerry says if you’re being honest, he’s OK with that.”
Kingsley Leggs, who originated the role of Deloris’ vengeful boyfriend Curtis on Broadway, is still playing the part on tour. He played an even more disturbing role, the abusive Mister, in The Color Purple on Broadway. He says he laughed out loud when he read Beane’s Sister Act script, and he has a method for playing a villain.
“The character’s function is to be the bad guy, but you have to find the humanity in him so that the audience loves to hate him,” Leggs says. “I love this show. It’s a wonderful piece with a great message. … Alan Menken is one of the great composers of our time. For this show, he captured the essence of ’70s music. You’re there. You feel it. It’s not contrived.”
Any musical is a complex collaborative effort that can flop, at a cost of millions, if just a few of its elements are off. Sister Act got a new lease on life for Broadway, and Zaks has a take on why audiences are so willing to follow Deloris through comic hell and back.
“She’s vulnerable. She makes mistakes but aspires to be something better. She’s trapped in an abusive relationship, and just as she’s about to leave, she witnesses a murder. Then we’re off and running,” he says. “Audiences love being in the company of a character who finds true purpose and a sense of self.”