When charged with adapting the hit 1992 movie Sister Act as a stage musical, you might think that composer Alan Menken had it easy. After all, one of the aspects that everyone remembers from the film is the Motown-tinged music, with a habit-wearing singing group modeled after the Ronettes and the song My Guy transformed into My God.
But it was decided to move the setting from Reno/Las Vegas/California (the movie) to 1970s Philadelphia, with the music having a decidedly disco beat, but still in a Broadway idiom. That posed an interesting juxtaposition for Menken.
“The same music that was so hyped up and sexual and party in nature,” Menken says, “we then turned it around and used it as music for God.” (He was hesitant to use gospel music, mainly because at the same time, he was working on the gospel-tinged musical Leap of Faith, which had a short Broadway run in 2012.)
He’s referring to the setting of a convent, where the main character, Deloris (Whoopi Goldberg in the film; she’s a producer of the musical), is on the run after witnessing a mob crime. The police put her in hiding with some nuns, where, like Maria von Trapp but in a very different way, she doesn’t fit in.
The musical, which also features lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, opened in 2009 in London’s West End, after an earlier version at California’s Pasadena Playhouse. When the show moved to Broadway in 2011, playwright Douglas Carter Beane was brought in to rework the book. (Interestingly, the original film featured music by Marc Shaiman, who would later write the scores for such musicals-from-movies as Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can.)
The national tour of Sister Act, which has been playing in Dallas for two weeks, opens Tuesday at Bass Hall, running for a week.
Fascinated by nuns
Menken, who has won several Oscars for scoring Disney films such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin — many of which have been converted into stage musicals — and also composed the memorable Motown-era music to the musical version of the B-movie Little Shop of Horrors, jumped at the chance to work on Sister Act, which features a favorite character of musicals: nuns.
“They’re so devout and serious, in terms of their commitment to God, and so cloistered,” he says. “They are within our world but yet in another world of their own. There’s this other analog besides just being nuns, in that they are fish out of water, which is a big theme for musicals. ‘Fish out of water’ I’ve done before, not least of which is The Little Mermaid.”
With Sister Act, there’s another archetypal character that’s a favorite of musicals — the gangster (see Guys and Dolls).
“We love prototypes; characters we understand,” Menken says. “When they confront the nuns, you see them being respectful, despite that they’re there to confront them. On the one hand, you don’t want to create things that are totally formulaic, but you do want to have a shorthand with the audience.”
Philly vs. Vegas
As for the new setting in disco-era Philly, Menken says it’s a transition that made sense.
“It was a very pronounced, stylistic period on every level,” he says. “Those jackets with the big shoulders, the bell-bottoms … In a musical you want to set it in a world where there’s a common language that the audience understands where the music is coming from. Philadelphia, more than Las Vegas, really grounded it in a culture, period.”
But no matter the setting, the character of a nun with a sense of humor is always a safe bet (see Nunsense, The Sound of Music).
“Here’s the funny thing with comedy,” Menken says. “People like to laugh at characters where we feel like we know more than they do. And nuns fit into that category. We don’t feel smarter than them, but we feel more worldly and that appeals to audiences. They love them for their purity and their commitment. It’s safe to laugh at them.”