You don’t have to know the 1992 movie “Sister Act” to enjoy the musical adaptation that hits The Smith Center Tuesday for an eight-performance run.
Jerry Zaks didn’t — and he’s the show’s director.
Even though Zaks had directed “Sister Act’s” original star, Whoopi Goldberg (in the 1996 Broadway revival of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”), he “had never seen the movie,” he says. “I watched the movie just before I flew to London” to see the musical.
The original fish-out-of-water comedy follows wannabe disco diva Deloris Van Cartier into protective custody — at a convent — after she witnesses a mob crime.
“It made me laugh,” Zaks says of the movie. “I couldn’t wait to see what had been done to musicalize it.”
Not enough, in the opinion of the four-time Tony-winner, a renowned Mr. Fix-It whose numerous Broadway revamps include “The Addams Family,” which played The Smith Center last November.
But Zaks also had seen enough to take on the task of reworking “Sister Act” for its Broadway run. (And, as it turned out, a subsequent national tour.)
Although the movie version of “Sister Act” featured a Motown-heavy score (including “Heat Wave” and “My Guy”), the stage adaptation boasts a “first-rate” original score — one of the things Zaks “loved about the show.”
Conveniently, that score was composed by none other than multiple Oscar-winner Alan Menken, whose off-Broadway breakthrough came with 1982’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” which enjoyed a 2003 Broadway revival directed by (you guessed it) Jerry Zaks.
Menken’s longtime lyricist, Howard Ashman, died in 1991 — eight months before the release of “Beauty and the Beast,” their instant-classic Disney fairy tale. But Glenn Slater (with whom Menken worked on two other Disney favorites, “Tangled” and the Broadway adaptation of “The Little Mermaid”) has proven “a great partner,” in Zaks’ view.
Their “Sister Act” score “had tremendous life and very clever lyrics,” Zaks says. “You know something is right when the lyrics are getting laughs.”
Yet, according to Zaks, there’s an even more essential ingredient in any movie-to-musical transition: “a good story.”
Determining “how compelling and powerful the story is, with a little luck thrown in,” is a must when it comes to a musical’s success, he says.
And “Sister Act’s” central story — “the struggle to connect” — has “always been the greatest spectator sport,” Zaks contends. “Unlikely people are put in a situation where they’re forced to connect.”
In the show, that means Deloris (played by Ta’rea Campbell, a veteran of both “The Book of Mormon” and “The Lion King” on Broadway) must connect with the convent’s Mother Superior (Hollis Resnik) and assorted nuns (all of whom have names that begin “Sister Mary”) — without blowing her undercover identity.
Retooling “Sister Act” between London and Broadway proved “an extraordinary journey,” Zaks says, remembering “consistently challenging the material to be better, funnier, clearer.”
Asked to elaborate on those changes, Zaks says, “If we had two or three days … ”
In short, some new songs replaced some old songs. Klara Zieglerova redesigned the set. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane contributed additional book material to the show’s book, which was written by “Cheers” Emmy-winners Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.(Full disclosure: Cheri and I went to high school together and are Facebook friends to this day.)
Most important, however, “the tone of the show wasn’t exactly right” in its initial incarnation, Zaks says.
Now, the show is “a lot funnier than London, I think,” he says.
And it retains “the heart” that helped make its cinematic inspiration a hit.
Whoopi wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The thing about the movie — it’s very, very special to her,” Zaks says. As one of the musical’s producers, “she wanted to make sure, in the adjustment from film to stage, that we did it in a way that preserved the heart.”
Although Zaks “was left alone” to rework “Sister Act” as he saw fit, “towards the end of the rehearsal period, she saw the show, we talked, and she gave me her notes,” he recalls. “I love her — she’s smart, passionate, a good listener.”
The revised version of “Sister Act” earned five Tony nominations, including nods for best musical, best score and best book. (It had the misfortune of competing against the juggernaut “The Book of Mormon,” which captured nine Tonys; it’s due at The Smith Center next year.)
The “Sister Act” road company represents “very much the show people saw on Broadway,” Zaks says. “I viewed the road production as an opportunity to make little improvements.” Zaks checks in at various stops “to check up on the tour” and audiences “all over the country have been enjoying it.”
Even those who go “expecting to hear songs from the movie,” he says. “It really doesn’t take long for the audience to let go” — and get into the “Sister Act” spirit.
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.