When you’re shooting for instant hilarity, you can’t go wrong with singing nuns.
This was more or less the time-tested comic wisdom behind “Sister Act,” Disney’s hit 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg as a hard-living lounge singer who creates a holy gospel sensation while hiding out in a struggling San Francisco convent from a group of cartoonish mob hit men.
And when you’re trying to find the funniest possible music for those nuns to sing on the Broadway stage, you can’t go wrong with ... psychedelic soul?
This was the slightly less conventional approach of Alan Menken, the prolific film and musical theater composer who wrote the funkified, “Saturday Night Fever”-esque score to “Sister Act: The Divine Musical Comedy,” which opens its six-day confession session in Shea’s Performing Arts Center on Tuesday. The show stars Ta’Rea Campbell as lead Deloris Van Cartier, and its ensemble also features Buffalo native Dashaun Young and Orchard Park native Michelle Rombala.
For Menken, whose work ranges from the off-Broadway hit “Little Shop of Horrors” to ubiquitous Disney films like “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the era he and lyricist Glenn Slater settled on for the musical adaptation of the film made perfect sense for the subject matter.
“I had always looked at the disco era, the ’70s, as one of those untapped times where there was such a distinctive musical flavor that had yet to be tapped for the most part on Broadway,” Menken said in a phone interview. “It really felt like a great opportunity to use this genre in a way that would be really effective, because there’s something so party-oriented and both decadent and fun about disco and psychedelic soul and funk.
“To use that for the nuns and take those lyrics … that say something sexual and passionate and apply it to God, struck me as a really good stretch and a lot of fun for an audience. I think it worked out well.”
It may surprise audiences to know that Menken’s musical contains none of the songs from the original film – not the soaring gospel hymn “Salve Regina” nor the adaptations of ’60s girl group hits like “My God” and “I Will Follow Him.” By dispensing with the film’s parody songs and skipping ahead a decade, Menken’s whacked-out score makes the songs in the film sound like Gregorian chants by comparison.
“I didn’t want to compete with the movie at all, and I also didn’t want whoever was producing it to be tempted to try to put in the song parodies that were in the movie, because I wanted to create a musical theater score that was entirely original to the musical and not simply an exploitation of the movie,” Menken said. “Also, I had done ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ I had done ‘Hercules’ and I was also working on ‘Leap of Faith’ at that time, so it was a vocabulary that I was really using a lot with other projects.”
The result is a kind of manic collection of borderline blasphemous production numbers and off-beat ballads. These include the unhinged, hip-hop-infused disco extravaganza known as “Sunday Morning Fever,” which includes the lyric: “Let’s party on / ’til the break-break-a-dawn / like a sanctifunkadelic orgasmatron!”
There’s also a slow, sultry number based on the style of the ’70s R&B group the Floaters, sung partially in Spanish, called “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” in which a character tries to seduce a nun by singing: “I ain’t no pastor / I’m a stone-cold master / of romance.”
The songwriting process, Menken said, was often as much fun as the resulting musical, though he admitted plenty of songs were left on the cutting room floor.
“It was just fun,” he said, of the process of writing “Take Me To Heaven.” “These nuns are just singing it to God, but the music is kind of making them slightly bump and grind and there’s just fun on a lot of levels there to be had.”
Fun, delivered through whatever musical medium makes the most sense, has always been Menken’s prime directive. When he writes a song, he doesn’t pay any mind to its intended audience, whether it’s for a kid-friendly Disney film or a Broadway project directed toward more mature ears.
“This may sound strange, but I aim none of my writing to kids. So even in the case of ‘Little Mermaid,’ when [Ariel] sings ‘Part of Your World,’ that’s just someone passionate about what they’re singing. There’s nothing particularly childlike about that song in particular, or about ‘Under the Sea.’ They’re pretty sophisticated,” he said. “In many cases, the music is taking the more adult sort of posture and the lyrics are doing the winking.”
Menken has worked with a handful of respected lyricists in his career, though perhaps none more fruitfully than the late Howard Ashman, with whom Menken wrote “Little Shop,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” Ashman, who died in 1991, still looms large in Menken’s work – including the forthcoming Broadway production of “Aladdin,” which includes material that never made its way into the 1992 film.
Since Ashman died, Menken said, “there is maybe not quite as much ‘what if’ anymore. There’s been a lot of real estate since he’s been gone. But as evidenced by ‘Aladdin,’ which is coming in next season, he’s still an incredibly vital part of my life.”
It’s clear that Menken puts Slater – who wrote lyrics for the 1992 film and 2012 musical adaptation of “Leap of Faith,” as well as the stage version of “The Little Mermaid” and the 2010 Disney animated film “Tangled” – in the same category as Ashman.
“And as is typical of many people who are funny, he’s kind of tortured. I mean, he has a family and kids and he’s a great guy, but in the actual writing process he will beat himself up like crazy. And that’s not unlike Howard Ashman,” he said. “They do their best work when they’re kind of mixing love and loathing. And, especially in the case of ‘Sister Act,’ he has that same sense that Howard had of finding a prototype, a stylistic prototype that’s just right for capturing the humor in a situation.”
Menken’s name will always be synonymous with Disney because of the earworms he and Ashman embedded into the heads of at least two generations of moviegoers – from “Under the Sea” to “Friend Like Me.” In the past, Menken has hinted at a desire to step more frequently away from Disney’s creative umbrella, something he did with his next film project, the Dreamworks Animation musical “Lidsville.”
Even so, he said, any attempt to distance himself personally or professionally from the Disney brand he helped to build just wouldn’t feel right.
“I still occasionally will go to the parks and I’m as much of a geek as anybody else,” he said. “It’s very hard for me to distance myself from what Disney has been over the last 25 years, because a whole lot of it’s been me. We are sort of, in some respects, one and the same.”
“Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy” opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and runs through next Sunday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $32.50 to $72.50. Call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.