In the beginning was the doll -- at least that's how Dan Goggin thinks all this Nunsense got started. The year was 1981, and the Church had already started to update its wardrobe. "A friend of mine, who's a Dominican brother -- as a joke - sent me a mannequin dressed as a Dominican nun," he says. "They had started to 'modernize,' so they weren't wearing the traditional habits. He got one and dressed her up and sent her as a joke."
It was this gift of gag that got the irreverent ball rolling. Pretty soon, Goggin and his cronies had come up with a greeting card kidding a Mother Superior in modern mode. Instead of a mannequin, he enlisted the modeling services of a friend, Marilyn Farina, a dental assistant who happened to be "just naturally a funny, funny person." She struck a dozen dizzy poses of a nun at the crossroads, and, at year's end, they discovered they had sold 200,000 cards!
Recognizing an audience out there, Goggin decided to turn up the flame a bit and make his humor come, literally, alive. The result was Nunsense, debuting in 1983 in the basement of The Duplex in Greenwich Village as a cabaret antic, lorded over by a supremely loony Farina. "There was no real story then -- just some sketches a friend had written and some songs -- but people loved it and wanted to know more about the characters." And that was what inspired Goggin to extend the revue into a full-length theatrical offering.
As writer of the book and songs and as director, Goggin workshopped this expansion at the Baldwin School in the summer of '85 and, on December 12, premiered the results at the Cherry Lane. The show really took off two months later when it shifted operations to a venue of higher visibility -- the Sheridan Square Playhouse -- remaining there till September when Circle Rep needed the use of its hall back for its own season, so Nunsense moved to the Douglas Fairbanks for a decade-long run, ending in '95 in rep with Nunsense 2: The Second Coming.
Both shows have been spinning around the globe ever since. Rue McClanahan starred in their television adaptations -- originally on A&E and now on PBS -- and then Nunsense 3: The Jamboree, wherein Sister Amnesia turns country-music star, was added to the mix; Vicki Lawrence taped a version of that at the Grand Ole Opry for TNN, and it'll air again around Thanksgiving. Come Christmas, Goggin expects to launch his fourth installment in the saga -- Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical.
You'd think there'd be no other way to slice and dice this material, but you'd think wrong: In June the first Nunsense bowed at the 47th Street Theatre -- regenderized and regenerated as Nunsense A-Men! -- with males inhabiting the nuns' habits. The fun quotient jumped -- a lot.
The idea of a gender-switch recycling was not new to Goggin, but he resisted it until it was proposed by some Brazilian nut in 1995. "I always said no because I've had great support from the priests and nuns, and I didn't want to betray that. The show's a positive approach to nuns and their humor, done in a loving way, and I was afraid guys would take it way over the top. Then, we figured, 'Well, it is Brazil, and that's far enough away for an out-of-town tryout.'" That production is still running three years later. Although drag is a strange way to get there, that's how Nunsense will finally forge into the U.S. mainstream. "Our real market is Mr. and Mrs. America. I wanted to do a show that would be fun and not offend, one where they'd say at the end, 'Boy, these guys are incredible performers' -- and I must say it's really turned out that way. At the end, when the cast come out without their veils to take a bow, you can hear a gasp in the audience, like 'Oh, we forgot.' I think it's a real credit to the actors that they can do that."
And it also reflects well on Goggin, who cast the show with care. His yardstick was Greater Tuna where two actors (Joe Sears and Jaston Williams) impersonated the entire populace, both male and female, of a tiny Texas town -- without stooping to campy excesses. "The way they created those characters was brilliant," says Goggin, "and I thought if we can do that with the nuns, we'd accomplish something. They'd have to look at it as a serious acting piece and do it with real respect to the nuns."
All this Nunsense, naturally, cloaks a Catholic past. Goggin grew up playing the organ for the early morning masses at St. Mary's Church in Alma, "a little town right in the middle of Michigan. I based the nuns in Nunsense on the personalities of the nuns who taught me. I didn't have those nuns they talk about, with the rulers, coming around and whacking you. The nuns I had were hysterical, really fun."
So it would seem. Life allowed Goggin a lovely little moment where the world he came from and the world he created briefly, blissfully, overlapped: "When we did the first TV special, we taped it at the Cherry County Playhouse about 30 minutes from the mother house of the Dominican sisters who taught me, so we went over and asked them if they wanted to be in the show. And they did. At the beginning, you'll see 52 real Dominican nuns dressed up as Little Sisters of Hoboken. The sister who says the blessing was Sister Vincent DePaul. She was 94, and she was the real Mother Superior the character was based on. About a year ago, the sisters called to tell me she had died. They said, 'You won't have to ask her to pray for you anymore. You can go directly to her and get whatever you need.'"
For the present, Goggin will pass. His cup runneth over. The original Nunsense has had more than 5,000 productions and has been done in 25 languages, bringing him unfathomable riches. All three shows, he says, have "grossed between $150–$200 million, but most of my money goes to the accountant, and if it's not in my pocket, I don't know if I've made it.
"All of this started out as a little joke, and, to this day, I can't relate to it. I take turns doing the laundry with the assistant stage manager, and I'm at home with that. To me, I'm that kid from Alma, Michigan, putting on a show in the basement."
The success of Nunsense is what some people would call serendipity. There's probably a church word for it, too. Goggin ponders a moment, then smiles. "Well, 'miracle' might do."
-- By Harry Haun