Alan Menken's musical 'Sister Act' pays homage to disco divas

“I thought disco was the perfect tone,” said composer Alan Menken of his musical turn at Sister Act, above. It’s based on the 1992 film that starred Whoopi Goldberg.

Joan Marcus | Special to the Times

“I thought disco was the perfect tone,” said composer Alan Menken of his musical turn at Sister Act, above. It’s based on the 1992 film that starred Whoopi Goldberg.

At first, composer Alan Menken was reluctant to turn Sister Act into a musical. In the hit movie, Whoopi Goldberg plays a nightclub singer who witnesses a murder and is put in a convent for protective custody. There she is named the choir director and shakes the church's rafters with her R&B and gospel arrangements.

"The Motown sound of the movie was something I'd already done in Little Shop of Horrors, and I was working on a gospel musical, Leap of Faith," Menken said in an interview. "I wanted something unique to this score."

Well, how about making Deloris Van Cartier (the Goldberg character) a 1970s disco diva like Donna Summer? And writing songs in the style of the Bee Gees, Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, the Weather Girls and Lou Rawls?

"I thought disco was the perfect tone," said Menken, whose songwriting partner for the show was lyricist Glenn Slater. "But if you use a style like that you've got to make sure it has a dramatic meaning. For example, the song Take Me to Heaven the first time is about a sexual relationship, and then later it's turned around to have the nuns sing that same song in reference to God. Just using disco as disco wouldn't be particularly effective. The sound you're using has to be dramatically specific to the moment that you're putting it into."

Sister Act, whose national tour comes to Tampa's Straz Center this week, had a long gestation. First staged in Pasadena, Calif., in 2006, the musical played London's West End before finally getting to Broadway in 2011, with a substantial rewrite by playwright Douglas Carter Beane of the original book by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner. Menken and Slater also made changes for Broadway that are incorporated in the touring production.

"A song that was removed in London was rewritten and put back in Act 2. Haven't Got a Prayer," Menken said. "A song called How I Got the Calling was replaced with a song called It's Good To Be a Nun. The music is the same, the lyric is different."

Sister Act, whose original cast album is from the London production, had modest success on Broadway, running about 16 months. The U.S. tour stars Ta'Rea Campbell (The Book of Mormon) as the soulful sister, Hollis Resnik (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) as the Mother Superior and Kingsley Leggs, reprising his Broadway role as Deloris' gangster boyfriend, Curtis.

Disney's music master

Menken is best known for his scores for animated films, starting with The Little Mermaid, which opened in 1989 and was pivotal in the revival of Walt Disney Studios. He went on to score other Disney animated features, such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Pocahontas. He's won eight Academy Awards for his scores, more than any composer but Alfred Newman.

Nevertheless, Menken, who works from a studio in Westchester County outside New York City, probably makes more money from his stage musicals than from the movies.

"The way I'm compensated for a film is I negotiate a fee," the composer said. "And they can be great fees. No question. But over the long haul, if you write a successful musical, the sky's the limit as far as the future of that musical. It can be done on Broadway, it can be done in stock and amateur, it can be done on a tour, it can be done on television, it can be done on film. When you start with something as a theatrical piece, your relationship to the piece is different than your financial relationship to a piece written directly for film, unless of course you're producing the film."

Several of Menken's musicals generate royalties for performances around the world. "Little Shop of Horrors is constantly out there being done, so it's a tremendous annuity. Beauty and the Beast is also huge in the realm of stock and amateur. A Christmas Carol — the one I wrote for Madison Square Garden — is probably next. The stage version of Little Mermaid is just getting out. Aladdin Jr. and Mermaid Jr. for schools do pretty well. Weird Romance has productions here and there."

Menken, 63, has another annuity to look forward to with Newsies, for which he won this year his first Tony Award, along with lyricist Jack Feldman, for best original score. The composer has other musicals in the wings for possible Broadway productions, including versions of Disney animated films Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

His key partnership

Menken gives credit to the late lyricist Howard Ashman for sharing much of his early success. Ashman was his original writing partner, and their first hit was Little Shop of Horrors, which premiered in 1982 and was a long-running off-Broadway smash.

"There's no way in your life to ever replace that first success, that walking on air that we both had when Little Shop of Horrors took off," Menken said. "And the innocence of practically paying for that first show ourselves and working at the WPA Theater on the third floor of this building above a massage parlor on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street."

It was Ashman who brought the composer to Disney where they collaborated on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. In 1991, Ashman died of AIDS at 40.

Since then, Menken has worked with many other songwriters, but Ashman holds a special place for him. "It's never the same because Howard Ashman was Howard Ashman," he said. "He was probably the most talented theatrical voice of our generation. He had such an understanding of how to use musical styles effectively and such an incredible intellect and heart. I miss him terribly."

Menken knows all about the New Fantasyland that just opened at Disney World's Magic Kingdom near Orlando. It features an extensive tribute to Beauty and the Beast.

"I love what they've done," he said. "In Belle's cottage, in her library, they have a hidden Howard. They have hidden Mickeys all over Disney World, of course, but on the binding of one of the books they have an "H.A." for Howard Ashman. I was really touched by that."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

Sister Act

The musical opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 16 at the David

A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $46.50-$81.50.

Call (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

Alan Menken's musical 'Sister Act' pays homage to disco divas 12/08/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 5:08pm]

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