News Column

'Sister Act' brings back the disco era

November 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 17--During the disco era, Alan Menken was a very busy guy.

Fresh out of college, he was finding his place on the New York music scene -- playing accompaniment for ballet classes, writing commercial jingles and songs for "Sesame Street."

One thing he wasn't doing was dancing like John Travolta.

"You'd think I could dance, because I have a great sense of rhythm," sighed the composer, whose movie songs and scores have brought him eight Oscars. "Really, I do! But you know Elaine's dance on 'Seinfeld'? That's me. My wife -- who was a ballet dancer! -- and our daughters always tell me, 'Don't do too much,' but I can't help it. The hands on the keyboard have nothing to do with the legs."

Even so, "I was definitely a fan of the pop sound," recalled Menken, who came to fame off-Broadway with "Little Shop of Horrors." First with the late lyricist Howard Ashman and later with partners including Tim Rice and Stephen Schwartz, he went on to compose a slew of Disney hits ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Newsies," "Tangled") and more.

But he remembered the music that was everywhere when he was in his 20s. "There was nothing that wasn't infused with disco and psychedelic soul," he said. "Lou Rawls, the BeeGees, Donna Summers -- their music evokes an era and a sensibility."

Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater bring all that back in "Sister Act," the musical that opens Tuesday at the Fox. It's inspired by Whoopi Goldberg's 1992 movie about a lounge singer who discovers her secret good side when she has to hide out in a convent, disguised as a nun.

In the movie, the fake nun -- in protective custody after her mobster boyfriend puts her on a hit list -- finds herself in charge of the choir. The musical nuns are a well-intentioned group, but totally inept. Not only does "Sister Mary Clarence" teach them to sing, she gives them fresh material, turning Mary Wells' hit "My Guy" into "My God" and coming up with a rocking, gospel-style treatment of the traditional "Hail Holy Queen." Even the pope loves it.

Those were both good numbers, Menken says. But, he added quickly, the movie was not a musical. "It was a pastiche," he observed. "If I was going to write this as a stage musical, I knew it needed its own score.

"That's when I thought, move it into the disco era. Give the show its own voice and time and place."

He especially liked the idea of the disco era, a time of marked contrast to the values of the cloister. (So did Goldberg, who is one of the show's producers.) "The music of this era is infused with sex and drugs," Menken said. "That is such a dichotomy with the nuns.

"And whatever I write, I want to look for an original palette with its own associations. There have been disco musicals, but they were jukebox shows. As far as I know, there's no book musical like this one."

With "Sister Act" now on tour, Menken is absorbed in other projects. He's writing the score for a musical adaptation of "A Bronx Tale" that Robert De Niro will direct. A couple of his Disney shows are on the move, with "Aladdin" (which played the Muny in 2012) bound for Broadway and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," a hit on European stages, coming to the U.S.

Currently, he and Slater are working on a show for ABC, "Galavant," a fairy-tale musical comedy that will have two original songs in each episode. And he hopes that the first show he and Howard Ashman wrote, a musical version of Kurt Vonnegut's "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," at last will be produced on a cast album.

"It played off-Broadway and at the Arena (in Washington)," he said, "but it was never recorded. We moved on to 'Little Shop,' then Disney -- and then Howard died. I hope this is an opportunity to give it new life. I will try to. All I lack for is vacation."

{hr /}'Sister Act'

When --Tuesday-Dec. 1. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. 1 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21. No performance Nov. 28.

Where --Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard

How much --$25-$80

More info --314-534-1111; metrotix.com

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(c)2013 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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