When Jerry Zaks first encountered Sister Act in the summer of 2010, the show had been playing for nearly a year in London’s West End. His job was to take the musical that was based on the much-loved Whoopi Goldberg 1992 movie and polish it for a transfer to Broadway. The four-time Tony Award-winning director says he was struck by how good the music, choreography, sets, costumes and lighting design were the first time he saw the show. “All the physical elements of the production were first rate, but I felt the story-telling was not as good as it needed to be.”
So together with a new book-writer, Douglas Carter Beane, he spent the next four months preparing Sister Act for its Spring 2011 transatlantic crossing. The Broadway version, which received five Tony Award nominations including one for Best Musical, is now about to embark on a North American tour which will start in Toronto this fall. Zaks is back at work to ensure that audiences across the country get to enjoy the show the way Broadway audiences did – and even enhance that experience. “I feel that we managed to finish Sister Act close to what I think is its ideal form by the opening in New York, but we will use this opportunity to revisit the show and make it better.”
Zaks wasn’t a surprising choice to get Sister Act ready for Broadway. A musical theater actor in the seventies (he made his Broadway debut as a replacement in the original production of Grease), he has since consolidated a stellar reputation as a director of serious drama, off-beat comedies, farces, musicals and revues. In addition to his string of hits, which include Six Degrees of Separation, Smokey Joe’s Café, the 1992 Guys and Dolls, the 1988 Anything Goes, and the original production of Lend Me a Tenor, the director is also one of Broadway’s most sought after “doctors” – streamlining and polishing troubled shows prior to their Broadway debuts. For the London version of Sister Act, Zaks says he thought some “surgery” was needed. “I felt it was important to go back to the story-telling that was done in the movie and make it right for the musical stage.”
“Jerry & Doug certainly made the show faster, funnier and tighter,” says Michele Groner, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Stage Entertainment, one of the producers of Sister Act. “It’s really a classic example of how a great director can shape something that has potential but maybe isn’t all the way there yet. It has been so gratifying to see audiences laughing hysterically night after night here on Broadway – they leave the theater on a total high.” Zaks explains that before the show came to Broadway he and Beane eliminated two songs they felt didn’t serve the story and asked the composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater to write a new song, “Haven’t Got A Prayer,” for the Mother Superior in the second act. “I also tweaked technically the presentation of some of the numbers,” he says. In the opening number, for example, he decided not to let Deloris, the nightclub singer who’s forced to take refuge in a convent, finish her song, “Take Me to Heaven.” She gets interrupted by Curtis, the gangster whose violent actions propel the story forward. The payoff comes when the song gets a full-scale staging with Broadway pizzazz later in the show. “You take little adjustments like that and multiply them, and that’s the way I approached changing the show — detail by detail,” Zaks explains.
“What was clear in London, what I wanted to highlight in New York, and now for the road, is that Sister Act is ultimately about tolerance: learning that those people that we think we have the least in common with, if we are forced to interact with them — and in a way that has a happy ending — we end up learning we have more in common with them than we did at the beginning.” Zaks continues, “In order for the show to work it had to be a love story, if you will, between Deloris and the Mother Superior — certainly not a romantic love story, but one in which they both open up to the other and find a common humanity. So at its core it has something to say. I always describe my earlier farces and more successful comedies as seriously silly. In Sister Act it is life and death for Deloris so she takes it very seriously. But hopefully we the audience can fall in love with all these characters so we have a lot of fun as they go on their journeys. I just want the audience to leave the theater saying, “Oh Boy, that was good, that was fun!”
By Gerard Raymond
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