How Whoopi Got the Habit
by Matt Wolf
One simple gesture said it all: there it was, August, 2010, and Whoopi Goldberg had walked on stage for the press performance of her limited run as the Mother Superior in Sister Act, as a capacity crowd at the London Palladium cheered and hollered in a most gratifyingly un‐ English way. Taking in the applause, the star put a finger to her lips in order to silence the crowd. The show, as they say, must go on, and it was time to do so.
That outpouring of affection wasn’t lost on a woman who has been wowing audiences in all art forms since the legendary New York director Mike Nichols first brought Whoopi to attention, presenting the then little‐known performer’s Broadway debut in 1984 at the Lyceum Theatre. Since that time, she was nominated for an Academy Award® for her screen debut in The Color Purple; went on to win an Oscar® five years later for her
indelible supporting turn in Ghost; fronted various awards shows (including the Oscars, where one will never forget the sight of Whoopi abseiling down on to the stage like some madcap Mary Poppins only to announce herself as “the African Queen”); and has become a daytime TV personality in America courtesy her co‐hosting duties on The View.
But Sister Act occupies a special place in the Whoopi canon, and not just because the source films that inspired the stage musical made a lot of money – more than $230 million in the case of the first one – and were also lots of fun. As that Palladium vignette served to indicate, here was a screen phenomenon returning to her theatre roots in front of an adoring crowd: Whoopi’s connection to the material remains undeniable and strong. Let’s
just say that even when not in the production Whoopi hovers over the stage musical as more than a coproducer: a sort of beneficent, and inspirational, patron saint.
Sister Act, of course, tells the story of Deloris van Cartier, the nightclub singer‐turned‐nun who has become one of those characters that audiences know without needing to be reminded of the title of the film itself; Celie from The Color Purple is another. But when talk turned to fashioning the movie anew for the stage, Whoopi had no intention of ever appearing in it; instead, she was there to preside over something, in her view, “brand new,
fresh and exciting,” that could mint a young leading lady‐turned‐star ‐ just as Whoopi had herself been catapulted to attention thanks to her theatre work a quarter‐century or more before.
Her intuition must have worked, given that Sister Act in London played more than 600 performances over 18 months, breaking box office records twice at the Palladium, and on Broadway was nominated for five Tony® Awards including Best Musical. In fact, the show has now been seen by over 3 million audience members across the globe, including productions in Hamburg, Vienna, Milan, and on tour throughout the UK, with upcoming
productions scheduled to begin in Paris, Stuttgart, Scheveningen, Moscow, Madrid, Prague, Sao Paolo, Korea, and Japan. Expect a stage convention of Deloris‐es someday soon.
The films, of course, are drenched in the music of the times, and Sister Act on stage could have gone the jukebox musical route. Instead, Alan Menken, a composer who has himself won more Oscars than most of us have had cups of coffee, offers up an original score in the best pastiche tradition, which is to say that an entire era of disco, gospel, and blues pours forth from the stage, contributing to a score that, says Whoopi, “works just as
well as the film, if not better.” Whoopi in any case knows first‐hand the virtues of music‐making when it comes to musical theatre: she was the unexpected choice to take over for Nathan Lane in the hit Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, directed by Jerry Zaks, and it is Zaks who directed Sister Act on Broadway – a vivid example of the sort of small‐world department on which
Broadway thrives. An African‐American woman as the male roman slave, Pseudolus? We told you there wasn’t much this singular talent couldn’t do.
And it’s surely not coincidental that Sondheim’s peerless lyrics for Forum’s uproarious opening number include the immortal line, “tragedy tomorrow/ comedy tonight.” That mantra could well apply equally to the hapless Deloris, a singer seeking refuge from the gun‐toting Curtis, who finds both a safe home and the chance to send
some women’s voices soaring within a convent that clearly didn’t realize all it needed was this feisty, winning outsider to wake them up. Sister Act may take its opening cues from the cries of a chanteuse in danger, but it builds toward a celebration not just of the sisterhood but of the power of soul, both musical and otherwise. In retrospect, small wonder Whoopi was keen to still her appreciative public in order to get the show on the road. You came to cheer, she seemed to be telling the sold‐out house. Now stay to listen.
Matt Wolf is the London theatre critic for The International Herald Tribune and theatre editor at www.theartsdesk.com.
SISTER ACT singing praises in Dallas NOW thru June 16 at the Music Hall at Fair Park and to Fort Worth June 18-23 at Bass Performance Hall.
Single tickets for the Dallas run, priced from $15-$85, are on sale now at The Box Office, 5959 Preston Royal Shopping Center in Dallas, or any Ticketmaster location; or online at www.ticketmaster.com. For groups of 10 or more, call 214-426-GROUP (4768). For full press release, click here.
Single tickets for the Fort Worth run are on sale now! Visit www.basshall.com.