It takes more than a prayer

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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 matterAt 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 Beyoncé 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.

"They both have to see what is life affirming in the other," said Slater, who also was writing lyrics for a musical adaptation of "The Hudsucker Proxy" and "The Little Mermaid." Added Bill Steinkellner, who with his wife won two Emmys on "Cheers": "Deloris develops an inner life. Mother Superior develops an outer life."

The curly-haired Cheri Steinkellner, typing hurriedly into her laptop, liked what she was hearing. "Mother Superior finds there is a God in the world."

So it wasn't just about faith — it was about learning something in unexpected places. At the end of the movie, when Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) says the mobsters can't shoot Deloris because she's a nun, it's for laughs. When similar lines are spoken in the musical, they needed to be the story's most serious turn. In the shorthand of the television sitcom, the authors had their "A story." Now the focus turned to the subplot, or the "B story."

"Is it a love story between Deloris and the cop?" asked Schneider, who as the head of Disney's theater arm launched "The Lion King" and "Aida." "Or is it a young woman — a novitiate — making a decision to join the convent?"

Everybody liked the latter idea, and Slater insisted Deloris' romance with the police officer had to remain. "Just for the music — the Marvin Gaye, Lou Rawls songs he will sing."

It was an inspiration that would prove much easier said than done.

Bicoastal plan of attackLike the building of the transcontinental railroad, the writing of "Sister Act" was launched on both coasts. Menken and Slater composed music and lyrics in New York, while the Steinkellners wrote the book in Santa Barbara. Schneider coordinated the creative process from La Cañada Flintridge, trying to make sure he could drive a figurative golden spike where the creative partnerships met.

In their initial stabs at an outline, Menken, Slater and the Steinkellners settled on scenes and songs that would prove to survive when the show was complete. By late May, a month after the first get-together, the Steinkellners had sketched out the musical's two acts.

It would open in the convent, its Mother Superior worried over her church's sagging fortunes. Then it would cut to Curtis Shank's Funkadelica Downtown Disco, where Deloris would be singing a medley of disco songs in her boyfriend's nightclub. The two worlds were miles apart, but they had to be thematically — and musically — linked. And that's where Slater, who would prove to be the show's most insightful problem solver, came up with a scheme that would guide the show.

"Remember 'Love to Love You Baby,' that Donna Summer song, where she had, like, a three-minute orgasm in time to the music?" Slater wrote in an e-mail to his colleagues. "What if Deloris does a similar thing: 'Oh God, oh God, oh my God, oh my God!' — which takes on a whole other feel when the nuns do it? Nuns singing frankly sexual lyrics that somehow come out wholesome feels like it would work simultaneously outrageous and sweet."

Outrageous, and problematic, as the later complaints from a Roman Catholic priest would prove. The show's authors were in a bind: They knew they didn't want "Sister Act" to insult the church and its members, yet they also realized the show needed teeth.

"We have to honor the religious tradition," Slater said in the Ventura meeting. "We are going to be on Deloris' side, but we can't look at Mother Superior as hateful." Said Schneider: "We cannot make the church the bad guy in this."

Going for the green lightBy October 2005, little more than a year before "Sister Act" was set to open, Schneider was ready to present Menken and Slater's first song to the Pasadena Playhouse's artistic director, Sheldon Epps. His support was critical, and not just because his theater was hosting the show's world premiere. The playhouse and Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, where "Sister Act" will head early next year, were jointly kicking in $750,000 for the production.

Menken, who has won eight Academy Awards, many of them shared with the late lyricist Howard Ashman, started working with Slater on 2004's animated musical "Home on the Range," and they are teaming on the upcoming musical stage version of "The Little Mermaid." They're a striking pair: Menken is a worrier but outwardly looks calm and enjoys first-class accommodations; Slater is a bundle of pencil-chewing nerves and doesn't seem to mind JetBlue red-eyes.

However dissonant they might appear, they have undeniable songwriting chemistry. Menken is as comfortable writing soaring ballads as bluesy love songs. And the wordsmith Slater contributed:

"Feel the flow! Dig the scene! Shake it like you're Mary Magdalene!"

The song Schneider placed into Epps' CD player was the musical's opening number, "Take Me to Heaven." The song had much resting on its shoulders: It needed to stake out the show's Motown influences, introduce Deloris and the sorry state of her singing career, show her witnessing Shank kill a man, have her run for her life, and set up enough musical and lyrical references to mine in the rest of the show. All in seven minutes.

Menken was singing and reading all nine parts (including Deloris' soprano and an Isaac Hayes imitation for Shank), and the music wasn't orchestrated.

Epps pushed play and sat back.

"I've been thinking aboutcha Since receivin' your call Can't see livin' withoutcha You've got me mind, soul, body and all."The music began thumping, and Epps started moving his head to the rhythm.

"Pray and I pray Ev'ry night and each day — Hopin' that you'll drop me a line. Pray and I pray 'Til you sweep me away Straight to cloud number nine!""It's fabulous," Epps said.

It was exactly what Schneider needed to hear. But once outside Epps' office, producer Reno brought Schneider's spirits down. Schneider had bought the show's rights from Disney on his own and had assembled a dozen investors to back the project. But the Pasadena-Atlanta production budget would cover only 14 performers and six musicians. Schneider and Reno wanted 20 performers and 10 musicians. "Sister Act" was going to cost a lot more than originally anticipated — from an initial estimate of $500,000, its budget was approaching $1.5 million. (If, as its creators hope, "Sister Act" merits a Broadway run, its production budget will soar to at least $10 million.)

"What are we doing spending a million and a half dollars?" Reno asked Schneider over coffee. "It's become," Schneider said, "a lot more complicated than what I imagined."

Within a few days, Schneider left for Europe in hopes he could sell "Sister Act's" foreign rights to Dutch investors for $300,000. With a thumbs up from Epps, the rest of the team buried themselves in song and dialogue writing.

Revelations in songBy the end of 2005, enough of "Sister Act" had been assembled to organize a reading. While bundled-up Christmas shoppers filled New York's streets, the creative team assembled in a Chelsea rehearsal studio to see where they stood.

Out of 16 songs, only seven had been written, and the musical's second act stood mostly unfinished. The amount of remaining work was troublesome, but the creators liked what they had so far.

Eight actors were cast to sit around a table and read the Steinkellners' dialogue; Menken and Slater's compositions would be played off a CD, with Menken again performing all the voices.

"My worry is it is too clichéd," Schneider said before the reading, as Menken and Slater sat at a keyboard, working on revisions to the musical's troubled second song, "Places to Go."

The reading went about as well as could be expected. Mother Superior felt more clearly drawn, and one song — "The Calling," in which the nuns risibly reveal why they became nuns — turned out so well it would scarcely change over the following 10 months.

Yet as the team reassembled in Schneider's 46th-floor apartment overlooking the Hudson River for a postmortem, it was clear something was missing. The musical didn't have enough heart. The creators believed every main character should have at least one "I Want" song, an emotional touch point revealing a character's private wishes. But those desires were still unformed, and some of the songs were lyrically aimless.

"I am not entirely clear on where we are headed," Slater said. "What's the point of the show?"

The two most noticeable shortcomings centered on Deloris and the police officer, Eddie. Her first "I Want" song, "Take Me to Heaven," made her ambitions seem trivial — marriage to a lowlife hood. Her second song, "Places to Go," was too specific and vain — all she desired was to become a star. "But what is it that she really wants?" Slater said. "Can there be a song," the usually quiet Bill Steinkellner asked, "where her self-delusion is obvious?"

In the subsequent months, "Take Me to Heaven" would be reworked and "Places to Go" ditched. It would be replaced with "Fabulous, Baby!" that played up Deloris' unrealized — perhaps unrealistic — aspirations.

Fixing Eddie's "I Want" song, "I Could Be That Guy," turned out to be more vexing. Was he a desk cop who dreamed of being a hero? A loveless loner smitten with Deloris? And why would he like someone who is initially so unlikable? "He's static," Menken said. "And static isn't good."

As they wrapped up the postmortem, Menken and Slater pitched a new song, in which Shank's goons would describe how they could seduce a nun in order to break into the convent.

"You have to trust us on this," Slater said. "It's not about having sex with a nun. It's about getting a nun. It's not in bad taste. But if it doesn't work, we'll throw it out."

At last, taking shapeOn April 27, "Sister Act" was staged for the first time with musicians and an audience in the Pasadena Playhouse's small Balcony Theatre. There were no costumes or scenery but plenty of new songs: "Fabulous, Baby!" for Deloris; "A Simple Life" for Mother Superior; "The Life I Never Led" for the convent's novitiate, Sister Mary Robert; and the so-called "I Could Get a Nun" song for Shank's posse. That song for the three goons, "Lady in the Long Black Dress," immediately became the production's favorite.

"Sister, you know I gotta So let me worship at your shrine And if you got stigmata— Show me yours, I'll show you mine."

After considering hundreds of big-name casting ideas (but never offering the part to any of them), Schneider had decided to hold open auditions and build an ensemble out of rising, rather than established, performers.

For the spring reading, TV actress and singer Dawnn Lewis ("A Different World") was cast as Deloris, Elizabeth Ward Land (Broadway's "The Scarlet Pimpernel") as Mother Superior, Harrison White (the Pasadena Playhouse production of "Purlie") as Shank, and Alli Mauzey (Broadway's "Hairspray") as Sister Mary Robert.

Mostly, the authors were pleased. "I don't think we have major surgery," Cheri Steinkellner said. But several casting concerns loomed.

Everybody wanted Lewis to stay on for the November opening, even though some considered her a bit of a diva. Support for Land and White was unqualified. Mauzey offered the most complicated debate. She had sung her ballad, "The Life I Never Led," exactly as Menken wanted to hear it — flawlessly hitting a difficult high-G note. But to others, she was all technique, no emotion.

"I didn't see the character, the acting," Schneider said over dinner in his La Cañada Flintridge home with the show's authors and its music team after the reading. It would take months to resolve the Mary Robert issue, but ultimately Mauzey was replaced by Beth Malone, who had acted in Schneider's "Grand Hotel" two years earlier.

No matter who was going to sing it, "The Life I Never Led" created an unexpected problem: There was no way Deloris could top it. When Shank found Deloris' hideaway, she fled the convent. The plot then called for her to return. Deloris had taught the nuns how to sing, but what had they taught her? She needed a conversion song — one musically distinct from "The Life I Never Led."

Menken and Slater hoped to provide the answer with "A Great Big Buncha Happy!" and added it to the show over the summer. The staging had Deloris' joining the nuns folding laundry and being swept up by their enthusiasm for simple tasks.

"Be a little humble! Forget your little self! You'll find a ton of goodness right under your nose And that's how a great big buncha happy grows!"

When it was first performed as the entire cast came together in September, it tanked. Time was running out — some performances were already sold out and outside the rehearsal hall, the air was filled with hammering and sawing as sets were being built.

"It needs to be a much bigger number," a dejected Menken said.

So Menken and Slater did what so many lyricists and composers before them have done — they crafted a reprise of "A Simple Life," a song Mother Superior had sung to Deloris in the musical's first act. It was an imperfect solution, but it worked for the time being.

What wasn't working was Eddie, especially in his big song, "I Could Be That Guy." The actor playing the part, David Jennings, had been rehearsing the Rawls-style song tirelessly, but some of his falsetto notes were still sharp. Eddie had little chemistry with Deloris, and Jennings seemed uncomfortable playing the police officer as a loser.

"He's got to loosen up," Slater said. "He's singing it like he's constipated."

Perhaps the actor and the part were not a perfect match. Maybe the role should be rewritten to Jennings' strengths. Or maybe, it was ventured, Eddie should be recast. Brent-Alan Huffman, the show's music director, said replacing an actor a month before the show's opening "would really be painful for the company."

Schneider was convinced Eddie's shortcomings were his fault as the director, and he vowed to spend as much time as possible with Jennings until his scenes clicked.

Schneider was confident the song's staging, including a surprise costume change, would help turn the performance around. "I just need another week to work with him," the director promised.

And off he went, just days before the show opened, to fix one more thing.

john.horn@latimes.com

'Sister Act'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions.

Ends: Dec. 3

Price: $40 to $100

Contact: (626) 356-7529; www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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