PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sister Act — Whoopee for Whoopi!
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's Sister Act.
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."
It's a hard-driving, eminently danceable hunk of music, and choreographer Anthony Van Laast throws himself into it with the wit and energy of someone remembering his disco youth. "The great thing also is now with Google and YouTube you can actually do research on the computer. But, yes, I recalled a lot."
Van Laast, who put the right moves to Mamma Mia! (play and film), here loves when the nuns learn how to sing ("Raise Your Voice"). "There's not a huge amount of choreography in it, but, by the end, they end up doing step-touch — step-touch, but audiences applause the step-touch because of the journey to get there."
This is our leading lady's favorite moment as well. "Being on stage with those women every night and hearing that sound and hearing them sing and me singing with them — it's just an amazing experience for me," Miller confessed warmly.
Not only does she dance and sing like an angel, she has artfully hijacked Goldberg's manic, abrasive persona and made it play as a character on stage. "I got Whoopi's seal of approval," she beamed, and that, of course, doubtlessly lightens the larceny.
"I grew up watching Whoopi," Miller said, "but I knew that if I was going to do her for the stage, I had to completely do it my way because it's a different story now. I'm a 26-year-old doing the show. It's the same story. My character really wants to be a singer, she really wants the limelight, and she's going to stop at nothing to get it, so I have to bring those kinds of things to the play and put Patina into all of that."
As Broadway debuts go, this is an audience-winning one — maybe even a Tony-winning one. For now, she'll keep her head down and not swelling and "continue doing this show every night. I'm having a great time, and I'm ready for the ride."
Clark is content with her second-banana Mother Superior slot. "It's not all fun and games for me, though. She's a tough cookie. I love how challenging she is — and how flawed. Anytime I can play a character who's flawed, it's so human and wonderful."
Audrie Neenan is flattered when accused of channeling Mary Wickes to play Sister Mary Lazaras, one of the last roles that brilliantly brittle comedienne played in "Sister Act" and "Sister Act 2." "Darling, I wish I could," Neenan sighed sweetly. "For my whole career, I've been compared to Mary — because of the sharp features — and that's fine with me. I take it definitely as a compliment, and, if anyone sees some of her in me — well, that's her soul. Oh, don't we miss her!"
As it is, she has enough acerbic asides that would warm Wickes' heart. "Thank you, Douglas," she said, "and thanks to the Steinkellners for writing the basis of the story and birthing it. The show's changed, it's expanded, and that's the way it should be. I've been with it since Atlanta and Pasadena. I was with it from the beginning playing Sister Mary Lazarus. Patina did all four productions, counting London."
Similarly, Sarah Bolt, her cup running over with joy, will bring wonderfully to mind Kathy Najimy's terminally blissed-out Sister Mary Patrick from the movies. Already, Bolt is wondering how long she can hold that smile. "So far, so good," she said. "I know it's going to be challenging to be able to keep that energy and that joy up because it's something that you can't really fake, but I think that I have finally found where that character lives so I'll be able to access it whenever I want. Also, I can't help but have so much fun with the people I'm surrounded by."
As the bashful, almost overlooked postulant Sister Mary Robert, Marla Mindelle is allowed to blast out a showstopper in the second act, almost as an afterthought — a la Barbara Harris' redefining moment in the movie "Nashville." Truth to tell, the song ("The Life I Never Led") was always assigned to that character as a big audience surprise. "I had to sing it for the audition a couple of times," said Mindelle. "It was a little bit of a different version in rehearsals, and they gave me a big giant ending, which I think is really rewarding at the very end for not only me but the audience as well. Tonight, I burst into tears. It's what every child who wants to do musical theatre dreams of, having that kind of moment and having a song written for you by Alan Menken. I grew up on every Disney movie, of course. It's like having your Ariel or Belle or Jasmine Moment on stage every night."
Chester Gregory, who hails from Broadway Tarzan's patch of jungle, plays the cop hero who saves Deloris from her unsavory past. "The character is in the movie, and I made sure I saw it while we were in the rehearsal process," he admitted. "The film doesn't have the backstory about him being 'Sweaty Eddie' so the musical is a little bit more fun to play than the film."
And speaking of sweat (which I rarely do), there's a stunt in the show where he is revealed to be wearing three suits at once. He brings it off with the greatest of ease — and why not? "I just came from doing Dreamgirls so I'm used to it."
Caesar Samayoa stands out — linguistically and beyond — as the all-Spanish member of the mob hit-squad. "We've had a really amazing opportunity to explore our roles and find our way into this material, and Jerry let us find the heart of these characters. He really let me explore the Spanish a lot. Even from my first audition with him, he got up and let me improv with him for 20 minutes just in Spanish."
Numbering among the first-nighters were Patti LaBelle, Adam Reigler; Tony winners Cady Hoffman and David Hyde Pierce, Gayle King, Cynthia McFadden, actor-director Jerry Dixon, Sheila Hancock, Lala Vasquez with lovely little rosary beads tattooed on her feet, Grace Hightower, Susan Haskell and Thorsten Kaye, Mary Beth Peil of "The Good Wife," S. Epatha Merkerson of "Law and Order," A Chorus Line's Jason Tam, Hello, Again's Elizabeth Stanley, Curtis Holbrook and Patti Murin (soon to play the title role of Beane's musical with Lewis Flinn, ing Lysistrata Jones).
"Morticia!" screeched Menken when Brooke Shields approached him. "I know," she shot back. "I'm staying thin for you guys." (Meaning the lead in Leap of Faith, which she did when the show world-premiered in Los Angeles last year.)
Chazz Palminteri broke into his Jerry Zaks cheer when asked who he was rooting for: "He directed me in A Bronx Tale so we're very good friends. He's funny, he's a genius, and I love anything he does." Any theatrical plans in the offing? "I just wrote a new play so we'll see what happens. It's called Human."
After Driving Miss Daisy into Broadway retirement, Boyd Gaines said he signed up for a three-week workshop in June of the new Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Aherns musical about the Paris ballet, with "Stro" directing.
And Max Von Essen starts rehearsals next week for the Maury Yeston-Thomas Meehan musical for Roundabout, Death Takes a Holiday. He's Jill Paice's fiancée, and England's Julian Ovenden is Death.
Now that it can be told, Mario Cantone was telling it: "I just did a pilot for NBC with Don Johnson called 'A Man's World.' It's the next project for Michael Patrick King, the writer-director-creator of 'Sex and the City.'"
Marilyn Maye is taking a night off from Broadway to join Amanda McBroom, Billy Stritch and Michael Feinstein for an April 21 tribute at Zankel Hall to her friend, Margaret Whiting. "We knew each other for years. The last time she went out was to come see me at the Metropolitan Room."
At intermission, Adam Lambert was asked if he fancied any of the songs. "Some," he said, "but I don't see myself in a nun's outfit." (Nor does the world.)
A stranger in a strange land of stage premiere, Sylvester Stallone posed with Goldberg for photographers, then burned-rubber getting into the theatre past the print media. Very L.A., that. And, of course, "The View" formed a united all-girl front of support for one of their own. "I'm here for Whoopi," declared team captain Barbara Walters, who was trailed by Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Joy Behar. "She's my sister on 'The View,' and we're rooting for her."
Wouldn't it be ironic — or at least fun — if the Tony race for Best Musical came down to Goldberg and the lead producer of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — Bette Midler? Almost certainly, Sister Act will put up a great Catholic outcry to The Book of Mormon. Praise the Lord, brother, and pass the sheet music.
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