PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sister Act Lyricist Glenn Slater

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Sister Act Lyricist Glenn Slater
 
We chat with Tony Award-nominated Sister Act lyricist Glenn Slater, whose rhyming dictionary is well-worn lately following a spate of new musicals.

Glenn Slater
Glenn Slater Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Glenn Slater's pencil sharpener might need sharpening. The Tony Award-nominated lyricist of Sister Act has been going through a lot of pencils to write songs for shows in the U.S. and abroad. In addition to Sister Act, seen in California and London before its Broadway bow this spring, Slater and composer Alan Menken wrote additional songs for Broadway's The Little Mermaid (for which they were Tony-nominated for Best Score) and penned the score to Leap of Faith, for a 2010 Los Angeles tryout. He and Menken were also Oscar-nominated this year for their work on the Disney animated feature "Tangled." On the West End, Slater penned lyrics for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. We spoke with Slater the day after he learned that he and Menken share a 2011 Best Score Tony nomination for Sister Act, the disco-filled musical comedy about a pop singer taking refuge in a convent.

Sister Act is a pure musical comedy, but it's interesting when Victoria Clark comes on as Mother Superior. There becomes this added layer of reality — her character is going through something, processing something…
Glenn Slater: She's such a wonderful actress, and part of bringing her on board for this was finding an arc for her, so that she can do what she does, which is create a fully three-dimensional character. She's done such a wonderful job. We wrote a new song for her, which didn't exist in the London version. We knew that when you have Vicki Clark, you need to use that voice! And so we wrote a song for her in the second act where we could really show off what she could do.

Which one is it?
GS: It's called "I Haven't Got a Prayer," and it takes her from comedic despair, to emotional heights, to deeply felt feeling, back to comedy. I mean, it's a tour de force moment for her.

Good writing is about rewriting, agreed?
GS: Absolutely.

Patina Miller in Sister Act.
photo by Joan Marcus

Is the pleasure in the rewriting? Or is the first draft, the big picture?
GS: I have to say, I'm a crazy perfectionist — I'm never happy. So, for me, there is a lot of pleasure in getting to go back and fix and fix and fix and fix. I would go back [laughs] and keep rewriting at this point if I could…

Well, when it tours, you can add your notes in.
GS: Yeah, but typically, during the process, there's a point in which everybody sort of has to pry my fingers off of it and say, "It's fine. Leave it alone. You don't need to keep working on this."

Sister Act is set in the Catholic archdiocese in Philadelphia. What's your background? Are you a Jewish boy? A Catholic boy?
GS: I'm Jewish. This is a show about Roman Catholic nuns in which two of the book writers — and the composer, and the lyricist, and the director — were all Jewish. [Laughs.] So we bring a slightly skewed point of view.

So did you get "Catholicism for Dummies" for research purposes?
GS: No, but I did do a lot of research, and went to several church services, and took a lot of notes, and studied up on my saints, and tried to get as much of the language into my system as I could.

Was there a yellow legal pad where you were writing "wimple," "apse," "scapular"…
GS: [Laughs.] More than one. More than one, yes.

Those are the building blocks for you.
GS: Yeah, a lot of yellow pads where I've taken Catholic prayers and parts of the mass, and tried to see how I can get them to rhyme, or how I can get them reshuffled, what words must I have, what words don't I need to have — some of which I used, some of which I didn't use. It's a complicated process.

I forget, do you use the words "apse"?
GS: I do use the word apse.

Do you rhyme it with something?
GS: I rhyme it with…"chaps." [Laughs.] Part of the fun of this was getting to take the liturgical language and crossbreed it with the 1970s — the height of the sacred with the complete depth of the profane in 1970s disco culture. Collide those together.

Brooke Shields and Raúl Esparza in Leap of Faith.
photo by Craig Schwartz

Leap of Faith played Los Angeles last fall and is aiming for Broadway. More rewrites?
GS: Fairly drastic on this one.

And Sister Act between London and here was a pretty drastic rewrite, right?
GS: Pretty drastic. A big, big book rewrite, and I think two songs dropped, two songs added, lots of songs refocused, and reshaped, and rewritten.

And with Leap of Faith, you learned a lot in the L.A. tryout?
GS: We learned a lot in L.A., and there's a ton of work to be done, which we are in the process of doing.

Is that a nightmarish process, or is that joyful — the rebuilding of the puzzle?
GS: There's usually a moment of nightmarishness where you look at it and say, "All that work I have to throw away and rethink," but then once you get into it and you get to start putting your hands on it and getting your hands dirty, it goes back to being fun. For me, the fun part is the writing, and the height of this process — the best part of this process — is when I go to Alan with a finished lyric and he sits and plays it for the first time, and we look at each other and say, "That's the song." That's the absolute best moment, and we get to do that 15-to-20 times a show. Everything after that is "Oh, this doesn't work with this," and "That's not exactly how I heard it," and even the great moments — I mean the first time we heard Patina sing "Fabulous, Baby!," or the first time we heard Vicki sing this new song, getting to sit in the theatre and hear the nuns sing "Raise Your Voice" — these are all fantastic. But that moment of creation is sort of the key to the process.

Sounds like you might be happiest being alone with the lyric on a sheet?
GS: Uhm, yes. Because it's, at that point, in the theatre of the imagination?
GS: Yes, but it's a close second — that moment where Alan and I are sitting in front of his keyboard and getting it exactly the way we want it, and when it all comes together, it feels, suddenly, you can feel it burst into life.

Alan Menken and Glenn Slater
photo by Craig Schwartz

And I get the impression you're a lyrics-first person?
GS: No, we work both ways. Quite a bit of it is me coming to Alan with — well, we'll sit in the room, we'll work on the idea together, and then I'll [come up with] a title, and then Alan will start generating music off that title, and I'll start filling in some lyrics off of that title.

And you've got a recorder with you, and you go home with some of what Alan has played?
GS: Basically.

So it works both ways?
GS: Yeah, and he'll generally send me home with a fully fleshed-out piece of music, which takes an hour — like an hour for him. [Laughs.] It's insane. It's insane.

Damn those composers!
GS: And then I'll go home and work for a week on filling in the lyrics, and then we'll come back together and reshape, and say, "Oh, I need a high note here," or he'll need an extra verse there, or it feels like we need a bridge.

A C-section, a D-section, a patter section…
GS: Exactly. Exactly.

And has there been a case when you've written out a fairly complete lyric, absent of music, and said to Alan, "I think I have something"?
GS: Sometimes. For this show, "The Life I Never Led," which is the song that Mary Robert — the shy nun — sings; that was a lyric first, where I had the title, and I knew what I wanted to say, and it came out very quickly, and I said, "I think this is it," and again, it took him like 15 minutes to set it. [Laughs.]

You and Alan have worked on so many different projects. Why do you think you two are such good collaborators?
GS: Well, Alan is a composer who works almost completely by intuition. He just sort of feels what the right moment is and it comes out of his fingers. I'm the exact opposite — I'm all head, and I think through everything a hundred times before I come up with the right angle. I think that combination with head and heart just sort of works well together.

With Sister Act, is there a lyric or a song that you are particularly proud of?
GS: Is there a song I'm particularly proud of? My favorite moment in the show is "Raise Your Voice," which is the moment when [pop diva Deloris] teaches the nuns how to sing. I'm really proud of the way that we sort of captured a montage effect in what is also an exciting and uplifting production number.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at kjones@playbill.com or follow him on Twitter @PlaybillKenneth.)

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