By John Benson
The recent musical- theater tradition of turning unlikely Hollywood movies into Broadway productions continues with “Sister Act.”
It started as a 1992 blockbuster movie featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a character who is hiding out from the mob while singing Motown hit songs with nuns in a convent. The stage version, featuring an original score by award-winning composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, became the smash hit of 2011, receiving five Tony Award nominations. Now, the show’s national touring production makes its Cleveland debut Tuesday through March 17 at the State Theatre.
One of the creative folks who was around from the beginning was Musical Director Brent-Alan Huffman, who explains why this comedy was turned into a musical.
“It’s just a beloved story,” said Huffman, calling from Milwaukee, “They love the character of Delores [Van Cartier] and the journey she takes. And everyone loves singing and dancing nuns. That’s been shown in this movie, and other things such as ‘Nunsense.’ Not all nuns are funny, but as a society, we expect nuns to be a certain way, and when they show us their humanity we’re amused by that.”
Huffman said his job originally was to cast the right performers who could pull off the wide range of material that has become the style of Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Enchanted”).
Basically, Huffman helps the actors expand their range and create a unique sound. There’s a song in “Sister Act” that actually epitomizes the journey Huffman takes his performers on. Toward the end of Act 1, “Raise Your Voice” finds Van Cartier teaching the nuns to find their voice by warming up and singing out loud, bolder and bigger.
“There’s a certain sound I strived for with this show with the nuns when they come into audition,” Huffman said. “I have them create a sound that’s actually not pretty as a soloist. It’s very forward and a very nasal sound but when you put a group of 15 of them together it’s what hits the back wall of a theater. It’s just interesting that, individually, each of the nuns are afraid to make that sound until you put them all together. [The cast] gets why it’s important to create that particular placement in their voice.”
Set in the late ’70s in Philadelphia, the “Sister Act” plot revolves around disco singer Deloris Van Cartier who, after witnessing a murder, is put in protective custody in a convent disguised as a nun. Naturally, the diva finds herself at odds with both the rigid lifestyle and an uptight Mother Superior. That’s when Van Cartier uses her voice to inspire the choir and in the process instill life into the church.
Musically, the theater production score is inspired by Motown, soul and funk. However, considering the popular “Sister Act” movie soundtrack includes songs by Etta James and Fontella Bass, Huffman admits some theatergoers may arrive expecting one thing and discovering another. Still, he promises no one leaves unhappy.
“Certainly people tend to think they’re going to come in and hear the exact same songs of the movie, which they won’t,” Huffman said. “It’s the same movie, it’s the same characters but the score suits the Broadway show well. So people may be surprised when they don’t find the songs they know from the movie but they’re never disappointed because the score fits so well.”