Early in her picky post-Oscar days in Hollywood, Whoopi Goldberg came across a property written for, and discarded by, Bette Midler in the Touchstone waste bin. She dusted it off, tried it on and found not only did it fit her perfectly — it was far funnier to have an African-American diva hiding out in a Holy Order, unseen by her gangster boyfriend. The result was "Sister Act," her second most successful film ever (after "Ghost," of course), with a worldwide gross of $231,605,150.
Now, almost 20 years later, she has sprinkled some of those millions — and some from Joop van den Ende, The Shuberts and Disney — over the material, and it has blossomed into a joyful noise of a musical (words by Glenn Slater, music by Alan Menken) that filled the cavernous Broadway Theatre with surprise and delight, beginning officially April 20 and finishing God-knows-when.
Most of its growth occurred in the final six-month homestretch to Broadway, following the lukewarm London reception. The musical Miracle-Gro is listed in your Playbill as "Additional Book Material by Douglas Carter Beane." Despite an Olivier nomination for the existing book by "Cheers" scribes Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, a daring and fairly unprecedented decision was made to scrap the script and start from scratch with a fresh new one from Beane — and voila! it all magically came together on opening night, just like in the movies.
"I've been called a hydrogen bomb before but never 'a secret weapon,'" Beane said in a witty stab at modesty outside the theatre in the intense pre-show chaos. The secret of his success? "What I did was, I saw the movie, then the show on the West End and just started writing. I figured if it were any good, I'd remember it."
The selective forgetting sharpened the show and liberated the characters from clichés. At the posh, superbly catered party that followed at Gotham Hall, Beane revealed what a fast tall-order that had been: "I knew I had the job on Oct. 15. I handed in my first draft on Nov. 15. I had my first reading on Dec. 15 of a whole new draft based on notes — and another one on Jan. 15, when we started rehearsals. There were a lot of notes back and forth, but, yeah, basically I was told to 'go crazy.'"
Which was surprisingly easy for him to do when he was reporting to director Jerry Zaks, a proven master at comedy and commercial craftsmanship. "Jerry was very trusting and very hands-on. To be in the room with him was a honor, really! 'Make suggestions?' He would rip the paper out of my machine and take a pen to it, and I would just sit there and watch in amazement and delight."
Clearly, Zaks was plainly pleased with what he had wrought and chose not to waste a lot of additional words on the press about it — beyond the basic "I'm very proud of this show." Himself a well-known professional "secret weapon" in the biz, he didn't take long exercising his magic on the property. "I came in about a year ago with the new script. Douglas Carter Beane — that's the name of our new hero."
Lyricist Glenn Slater was relieved to be, at last, at the finish line. "It was such a long road, and we made so many changes, but it felt like the culmination of all the fixes — all the nights we sat there banging our heads saying, 'How do we solve this?' How do we solve that?' — came together tonight. Now the show is like a bullet."
The new script did necessitate song changes, he admitted. "We added a song for Victoria Clark in the second act because, when you have Vicki Clark, you want to use that as much as you can. We changed a number for the nuns in the first act. Their first song used to be called 'How I Got the Calling.' We loved it as a song. However, it felt like they were able to sing a little bit too well too early on so we came up with a new number that sorta played up their quietness instead."
Tony winner Clark is the Mother Superior of the joint (the Maggie Smith role), an anchoring presence of grace and civility amid the churning comedy — as well as a sparring partner for the Goldberg character, Deloris Van Cartier (Patina Miller), a nightclub singer whom Clark puts in charge of upgrading the listless drone of singing that the choir inflicts on the worshippers. In no time at all, the nuns doing disco moves, selling the hell out of hymns, attracting the attention of local TV news and blowing her cover to the hoodlums out to silence her for good.
"All that music from the '70s is so great and so melodic," contended Slater. "It hits all of those pleasures and makes you want to get up and dance. And to be able to take that stuff and give it a little subversive spin is so much fun for me." Case in point: "When I Find My Baby," Menken's most insistent melody, which is wedded — Jacques Brel-like — to some horrific lyrics, sung by Deloris' killer beau (Kingsley Leggs), who turns out to be itemizing the ways in which he will murder her.
There has been some musical tiptoeing around sensitive church matters — but not that you'd necessarily notice it. "We've gone back and forth between being careful and not-so-careful," Slater remembered, "and, no matter what we do, there are always some people who think we're being too respectful and some people who feel we're not respectful enough. It's a seesaw. Hopefully, we've found a balance where people are having fun and not thinking about respectful or not respectful."
Pressing the faith matter a bit further, he and Menken will resume work on their next musical — Leap of Faith — with a new director and writer on board, so evidently something was learned from the six years they put in on Sister Act.
The title tune is Menken's favorite contribution to the score. "That was one of the last entries into the score," he said, "a really complicated little link in the story to give Deloris a quiet moment that would express what she's feeling in a way that was stylized and also emotionally compelling and would not overturn other moments."
The score went down well in London, Menken contended. "Audiences just loved it, I would say. A lot of the changes that happened here were book changes, but we did reinstate the song, 'I Haven't Got a Prayer' that had been in the U.S. production originally, was cut for London, and then was brought back here and rewritten."
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