By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
3:27 PM EDT, June 2, 2014
Singing nuns have always proved irresistible.
There was the Belgian sensation who made "Dominique" a chart-topper in the 1960s, Today, there's Sister Cristina Scuccia, the Sicilian star of Italian TV and YouTube who belts out Alicia Keys songs, and the sweet-voiced, Missouri-based Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, whose CDs of Gregorian chant are best-sellers.
And coming to Baltimore this week are some very vocal nuns who get into the habit of shaking up church services at Queen of Angels Cathedral in Philadelphia with the help of high-voltage songs. These are the reverent women of "Sister Act," the musical based on the 1992 movie of that name.
You remember the film's "Some Like It Hot"-ish premise — an aspiring entertainer named Deloris witnesses a gangster hit and, to save her own life, hides out in a convent. She quickly turns things upside down there, teaching the sisters how to embrace some not-entirely-sacred-sounding music and drawing a much more energized bunch of parishioners to church.
Whoopi Goldberg, who played Deloris in the film and memorably taught the nuns to sing "My God" to the tune of Mary Wells' "My Guy," went on to become a producer of the stage musical. This version of "Sister Act" started out in 2006 in California before hitting London's West End in 2009 and, two years later, Broadway.
While some recent movie-to-musicals, among them "Ghost" and "Flashdance," preserve the popular songs that were on the original soundtrack, this one features a totally new score. For that matter, it also offers a tweaked plot.
"It is set in Philadelphia, instead of Reno and San Francisco," says Ta'Rea Campbell, who plays Deloris in the national tour production. "The time is 1978, as opposed to 1992, which means the music is more disco. I've had people tell me they can't wait to hear the songs from the movie, but, after the first 15 minutes, you forget about that. You don't miss them. It's a wonderful score."
That score was written by Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Alan Menken (music), who collaborated on the 2008 Broadway musical "The Little Mermaid."
"I was actually reluctant to do 'Sister Act,'" Menken says. "The movie was a very well-known title. And it already had songs in it. Peter Schneider, the original producer, prevailed upon me to consider it."
Menken, whose musical theater credits include "Little Shop of Horrors" and scores to several Disney movies that have earned him a hefty eight Academy Awards, was uninterested in replicating the music that had been in the cinematic "Sister Act."
"I didn't want a Motown or rhythm-and-blues genre," Menken says. "I had done that before in 'Little Shop of Horrors.' I felt it was a very used genre at this point. I asked if we could make the show new somehow. And that's what we did."
The composer seized on the possibilities when the plot was reset to the disco era.
"Disco music fueled a dance and sex and drugs culture," he says. "In 'Sister Act,' it would be sung by nuns to fuel worship of God. It's fun to see the contrasting worlds."
Menken's music for the show gives nods to such artists as Curtis Mayfield, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
"People hear that and think, 'Oh, I know where you're coming from,' " Menken says. "It's effective when you have a set of associations with your audience. It sets a time and place."
Writing in a style that conjures up a past era doesn't come easily to every songwriter.
"I think I do that particularly well," Menken says. "What Marc Shaiman did in 'Hairspray' was very much the same approach."
While the music is meant to evoke an era, the lead performer in "Sister Act" avoids evocation.
"There has been no pressure to imitate Whoopi Goldberg," Campbell says. "No one has ever asked me to be anyone other than who I am. And [Goldberg] has been so supportive."
Campbell, who played Nala in "The Lion King" on Broadway and was in "Caroline, or Change" at Center Stage during the 2008-2009 season, has also felt support in theaters on each stop of the tour.
"There has never been a night when the audience didn't stand and cheer for us," she says. "I think people respond because the music is truly fantastic. It makes you want to get up on your feet. It's a fun show. And the story rings true. It's about not judging people by how they look."
Just as Deloris learns not to judge a nun by her wimple, the Mother Superior learns to see beyond the coarse surface of the woman she agrees to shelter.
"Deloris wants to be a star but doesn't really know where she belongs," Menken says. "She doesn't join the nuns, but she finds her path in that sisterhood, which is really touching."
Despite the talent behind the musical, which was nominated for several Tony Awards, it enjoyed only a modest run of 561 performances on Broadway.
"I have a lot of faith in the future of this show," Menken says. "I think one day there will be a major revival. There is no music I've written that I love any more than 'Sister Act.' I am so proud of the score."
If you go
"Sister Act" opens June 4 and runs through June 15 at the Hippodrome, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $85 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun