A '70s-Set Sister Act
By Frank DiLella
Composer Alan Menken and producer Whoopi Goldberg get their Sister Act together for Broadway.
"Don't come in expecting The Scottsboro Boys or Next to Normal," EGOT (Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony) Award winner Whoopi Goldberg says with reassurance. "Sister Act is not rocket science — it's hell-bent on being fun and silly, with a little heart thrown in."
Based on the widely successful 1992 movie of the same name, Sister Act the musical is one of three film-to-stage transfers on Broadway this spring. Goldberg, picking up a different "habit" than usual as one of the musical's producers, is best known for creating the character of salty lounge diva–turned–nun Deloris Van Cartier in both the original "Sister Act" movie and its sequel.
The stage version, which premiered in Pasadena, CA, in 2006, recently ended a successful run on London's West End. Whoopi was brought on board as a producer for the U.K. production and has remained with the project ever since. She even stepped into the role of Mother Superior across the pond because the West End production was in what she calls "a pinch."
When asked about perhaps donning the habit over here, Whoopi says, "That's not going to happen. Jerry Zaks [Sister Act's Broadway director] is not in a pinch." (For the record, Tony Award winner Victoria Clark, of The Light in the Piazza, plays Mother Superior on Broadway.)
To audiences expecting to see the film story simply moved to the stage, Whoopi says: "This is not the movie. Deloris is not the old dame I played in the film, trying to figure out where to fit in. Deloris [played on stage by newcomer Patina Miller] is now a young woman living in the 1970s, and she's on the up and up. The story is the same, but the music is different."
Celebrated stage and screen composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater are responsible for an original disco-inspired score to accompany the soul-singing ladies in black and white.
"I always look for vocabulary that really speaks to me," Menken says when asked about crafting the Sister Act score. "I had my ear and eye on '70s pop music, disco, psychedelic soul and funk. There's a lot of fun in that music.... In my score there are influences of Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, Marvin Gaye and Patti LaBelle."
But with a brand new score, how does one create the brilliance that was seen in the film — nuns turning Motown hits into church hymns?
"We establish a medley of 'known songs' at the top of the show — a disco song called 'Take Me to Heaven,'" Menken responds. "When we hit the end of the first act, the audience knows the song, and now the disco song goes to praising God."
While Menken says that he is a bit nervous about bringing a new version of a familiar property to the stage, Whoopi says with confidence that at the end of the day, "Sister Act is family entertainment. Entertainment, yes.... But nuns singing anything is so fun."
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