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.”