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It takes more than a prayer

Reworking a hit film for the stage can be a test of faith. Witness the 18-month birth of `Sister Act: The Musical.'

November 05, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

THE song was called "A Great Big Buncha Happy!" but none of the authors of "Sister Act: The Musical" seemed terribly cheerful.

For a year and a half, the new musical's composer, lyricist, director and two writers had toiled to transform the 1992 Whoopi Goldberg comedy into a production worthy of Broadway. But before the musical could reach New York -- let alone be ready for this weekend's Pasadena Playhouse premiere -- its five creators needed to plug a persistent narrative hole, and "A Great Big Buncha Happy!" was hardly doing the trick.

That was but one of many challenges. There also was the last-minute debate over recasting one of the musical's stars, objections from a skeptical Roman Catholic priest, and a big first act dance number that wasn't landing. Those creative tests might have seemed unique to "Sister Act," but the architects of countless other movie musicals wrestle with similar issues in rehearsal rooms across the nation.

As the movies become nothing but sequels and television a lineup of various versions of "CSI," the theater is overflowing with film-inspired musicals. Following the critical and commercial windfall of "The Lion King" and "The Producers," any number of movies are being reworked into shows -- a slate as diverse as "The Color Purple," "The Full Monty" and "The Wedding Singer."

For studios and outside investors alike, the show-tune attraction is irresistible. With movie admissions flat and DVD sales slowing, movie musicals can deliver acclaim ("The Producers" won 12 Tonys) and a geyser of profits (with a worldwide gross of $2.6 billion, "The Lion King" has generated an estimated $1 billion in Disney profits). MGM has licensed no fewer than three dozen movies -- including the improbable "Get Shorty" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" -- for song-and-dance adaptations.

But as with any high-stakes creative endeavor, movie musical blockbusters don't grow on trees. For every "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" hit, there's an "Urban Cowboy" fiasco. And just as in the movies, crafting a successful musical involves a constant battle between commerce and art -- musical theater may be a populist medium, but its execution relies on esoteric concepts such as changing keys and 16-bar dance breaks.

Even a notion as obvious as "Sister Act" -- the movie, written by Joseph Howard, already had music with its singing nuns -- still had its share of false starts, dead ends and about-faces. Over the course of its gestation, however, the show ultimately took shape, and as opening night approached, it grew sharper, funnier, more moving. The only question was whether it would be ready in time.

The heart of the matter

AT the center of almost every successful musical rests a big idea. Audiences may be moved by a certain song, swept away by a particular performer or bowled over by a specific production number. But if those elements aren't united by a strong theme, the musical will have little poignancy.

At the very first meeting of the "Sister Act" creators, an April 2005 breakfast in Toluca Lake, the search began to discover the soul of the show. The outlines from the movie would remain the same: A lounge singer about to testify against her gangster boyfriend is hidden by the police in a convent. Thus ensconced, she turns its tuneless choir into a raise-the-rafters musical group. That's the plot, but what's its big idea?

"It's 'Beauty and the Beast,' " said Peter Schneider, the musical's wiry director, at that first meeting. "That's the big idea -- it's a fairy tale."

But whose fairy tale? Does the singer, Deloris Van Cartier, find a new man -- or something inside herself? Is the convent's despairing Mother Superior, who is first appalled by the lascivious Deloris, changed through the singer's joyful inspiration? And what's in it for the nuns?

Over the next 18 months, Schneider, composer Alan Menken, lyricist Glenn Slater and book writers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner would bat around incalculable A-list casting ideas (Queen Latifah or Beyonce for Deloris? Emma Thompson or Glenn Close for Mother Superior?), bicker over what year the story was set (the late 1970s -- or "some time ago?") and debate the fates of two lead actors, one of whom was cut loose. But at every step of the way, almost every conversation drifted back to the big idea -- how to define it and how to execute it. Solutions to both questions weren't fully formed until just days before the show's opening.

By the time the creative team and producer Michael Reno reassembled in Schneider's Ventura beach house a few weeks after that first meeting, the musical's themes started emerging: This was going to be a musical about faith.

Mother Superior may be losing hers, while Deloris is trying to find hers.

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