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.”