Douglas Carter Beane: Mister Sister

Having already graced Broadway with The Little Dog Laughed and Xanadu, late-addition librettist Douglas Carter Beane blesses the musical Sister Act with his divine gay sensibility.

BY Brandon Voss

April 20 2011 6:25 PM ET

SISTER ACT X390 (JOAN MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM

How much did you look at the movie for inspiration?
I had it on my computer, so I watched it three times flying over to London. I wanted to get the structure down, and there are lots of hidden lines there that I wanted to expound on. Then I saw the musical in London three times in two days, and I watched the movie two more times on the flight back. After that, I never looked at the movie or the musical’s original script again. I figured that if something was really good, I’d remember it.

What did you see as your ultimate goal as a writer when you first saw the show in London?
Glenn Slater’s lyrics were so sophisticated and savvy in a wonderful Lorenz Hart way, and I felt that the dialogue should seamlessly match that. And the music by Alan Menken is so entrenched in the ’70s, so I wanted the scenes to be that way too. I actually grew up in Philadelphia in the ’70s, so I totally knew this world that Alan and Glenn had created.

How does their relocating the action from present-day San Francisco in the film to 1970s Philadelphia benefit the musical?
It puts it in the world of disco, which is great, but there are also just certain moments in time when cities are amazing places, and Philadelphia was an amazing place at that time. All this great music was coming out of this little town — Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Hall and Oates, and warm, gooey disco like “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” It was also when the whites fled the city for the suburbs, and the city was taken over by blacks and the gays. It was this complete structural change in society, and it was wonderful. You suddenly saw straight white people standing in line waiting to get into gay discos. So the new setting also allowed me to play up race, since Deloris is black and these nuns are mostly white.

You have a knack for writing dialogue for nuns. Were you raised Catholic?
No, I’m a big ol’ Protestant, with Methodist ministers all through my family. Consequently, I have no bad feelings for the Catholic Church. People sometimes come out of the Catholic Church with all this rage, but I just have good feelings of happy nuns I met while doing county and state chorus in high school. To me, they were delightful and full of spirit.

Although never actually seen, there are multiple references in the show to a pair of “bachelors” who want to buy and convert the church and convent into their residence.
Yeah, the “bachelors who deal in antiques.” That’s a spin on an old Philadelphia expression, “Pine Street Bachelors,” because Pine Street had all the antique shops. I knew I didn’t want to have any lesbian nuns, but I wanted the audience to know that Philly was a very gay place and that it was a part of the world happening outside around them, so those bachelors are a running joke.

A drag queen also gets mistaken for Deloris in a bar.
I went to bars like that when I was a teenager. I had to represent my memories and my heritage of black and gay Philadelphia. I want people to know how friendly and wonderful it was during this crazy bubble of time. It’s the Philly I grew up in.

You definitely included nods to your gay audience.
It’s funny, because people will occasionally talk to me about my projects and say, “Well, you’ll want to have some gay stuff in there, of course.” I’m like, “Would you say that to a black writer? A Jewish writer?” But with gay writers, it’s like, “Oh, get some camp in there!”

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