After outing closeted actors in The Little Dog Laughed and invoking ancient muses in Xanadu, Tony-nominated playwright and librettist Douglas Carter Beane puts nuns on the run in Sister Act, which opens April 20 at the Broadway Theatre. Based on the 1992 film and coproduced by the film’s star, Whoopi Goldberg, the Alan Menken–Glenn Slater musical stars powerhouse Patina Miller as Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who helps a convent choir sound heavenly while she hides in witness protection. During the show’s London engagement, Beane was hired to rewrite the musical’s book prior to its Broadway bow. Also preparing to premiere his musical Lysistrata Jones off-Broadway in May, the To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar scribe explains his personal connection to Sister Act’s setting — and why Spider-Man thankfully stole his thunder.
The Advocate: The Playbill for Sister Act still attributes the book to Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. You’re modestly listed under “Additional Book Material,” a credit also sometimes known as a “script doctor.” Is that an apt description?
Douglas Carter Beane: That implies that I fixed things, but I actually did a complete rewrite. A script doctor would say, “This works, this doesn’t work,” but what I did was an overhaul. I didn’t heed to the original book. I was just asked to keep all the songs in the same order.
Was this your first overhaul of an existing project?
Yeah. That never really interested me before, but the score is so good, and the whole premise is so amazing. I knew everyone would freak out in the beginning about getting a whole new book, but as awful as I knew that would be, I also knew it would be over soon and that everyone would be eventually be happy. I’m relieved that it all worked out.
Meanwhile, another Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is getting a major script overhaul by another gay writer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Can a gay man’s touch save Spider-Man too?
I think so. Sorry, I’m trying to keep all references to sticky fingers off the table. [Laughs] It’s great, because no one seemed to notice that we were overhauling Sister Act because they were all so concerned with Spider-Man. We were completely redoing a $12 million Broadway musical, but no one was paying attention to us because they were too busy watching the $65 million disaster down the street.
You worked with producer Whoopi Goldberg when she did a brief stint in Xanadu. Did she recommend you for Sister Act?
Yeah, Whoopi recommended me to the show’s director, Jerry Zaks, whom I’d never met before. Nathan Lane, who’ll be doing my play that I’m working on [called The Nance], also recommended me. I was lucky to have such high-end job recommendations. I should probably list them at the bottom of my résumé.
How hands-on was Whoopi in your rewriting process?
She’s been very hands-on. She was there giving me notes on my first draft, and she was there giving notes the week before we froze the show. She’s very direct and blunt, just like she is on The View, so you’re not going to get a sugarcoated point of view from her. What happened on the film was that Paul Rudnick created the concept, but then he left the project. Many writers came in after him — Carrie Fisher, Robert Harling, Nancy Meyers — but Whoopi and Maggie Smith also started improvising on camera, so there’s a lot of stuff in the movie that Whoopi actually wrote. She really knows these characters, so she’s been very helpful and supportive.
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!”
That said, your upcoming off-Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones, a modern retelling of the ancient Greek comedy Lysistrata, is about a group of girls who withhold sex from their boyfriends on the basketball team. Does it include any gay themes or characters?
Oh, sure. You can’t do a show about college basketball without that. Please, that’s what keeps me going to those games on Saturday afternoons. Lysistrata Jones is all about love and sex, so I would be remiss if I didn’t bring in some gay themes.
The composer-lyricist for Lysistrata Jones is your partner, Lewis Flinn, with whom you have two adopted children. Tell me about your collaboration.
He writes amazing pop music, so I wanted us to write pop theater together — like, what would it sound like if Lady Gaga wrote a Broadway musical? But he had already written music for a lot of my plays. Actually, I first met Lewis when a director brought him on to write an original score for a play I’d written. I’d already selected found music for the show, so I was full of resentment when we met because I felt my vision wasn’t being served, but I very quickly developed a huge crush on him.
Isn’t it risky to keep mixing business with pleasure?
We’ve been married for 10 years; there’s no pleasure left. [Laughs] It’s actually a very easy collaboration. We have a shorthand that takes people’s breath away because they think we’re angry with each other, but that’s just the way we talk creatively. We rarely argue.
Since it opened on Broadway in 2006, The Little Dog Laughed has been performed in theaters all over the world. Do you ever catch any of those productions, if for no other reason but to bask in the full-frontal male nudity that you made possible?
Right? I knew I was put here for a reason. Yeah, I do check them out once in a while. I was delighted that it caused scandal in Bergen County, N.J., last week, when they tried to shut down a community theater production because of the disgusting sight of boys kissing. The Genesius Theatre in Reading, Pa. — the very first stage I ever walked upon and the theater that made me a writer — is doing it in November, so I’ll see that for sure. In the last month, I saw productions in the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Australia. It turns out that self-loathing among homosexuals and homophobia among heterosexuals is not particular to our country; evidently, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, and I will continue making money from it.