Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, book writers for "Sister Act"
BY CARY GINELL
On Sunday, Cabrillo Music Theatre audiences who stuck around were treated with an informative and entertaining talkback session with Sister Act co-creators Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and choreographer Michelle Elkin. Sister Act concludes its two-weekend run with five more performances this Thursday through Sunday.
The Steinkellners are better known for their work in television (Cheers) but have since ventured into the world of musical theater. Their throwback musical Hello! My Baby, staged in 2010 at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, received an Ovation award nomination. Sister Act, which made its Broadway debut in 2011, received five Tony nominations and is now a popular draw in community theater. Effusive and friendly, the Steinkellners and Elkin engaged with the Cabrillo audience after the show, responding to some excellent queries about their work.
Q: Who did you have in mind for the lead when you wrote the show?
CHERI: A lot of the show was modeled from the film, and then it changed along the way. It changed because we had an amazing cast member who was originally playing one of the backup dancers – and this ended up being Patina Miller. And so the character of Deloris went from being, as she was in the movie, a has-been who missed her moment to a wannabe who is waiting for her moment. And that’s where the change came.
Q: With so many stories being told and retold over and over again, where do you get your inspiration for new material?
CHERI: That’s a big question. Honestly, I think we try to write what we want to see. For example, after Sister Act, we said to Alan Menken, “What do you want to do next?” And he said, “Well, you’ll have to wait in line behind eleven other shows that I’m working on.” So I thought, who else do I want to work with besides Alan, because after you work with Alan, what is there? You’ve had the best. So I went back to writers who were no longer living, from the old Great American Songbook: Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Eubie Blake, and Cole Porter, and looked at songs that were in the public domain. And we wrote a musical called Hello! My Baby and took all of those songs and put them together in one show. In that case, it was about working around the music.
BILL: Actually, how we got to do Sister Act was we were doing a Saturday morning cartoon called Teacher’s Pet and then we did the movie version of it. And we decided to put some music in it and Disney said great, but we’re not going to pay anybody to write the songs, so Cheri said, OK, so they then presented us with a number of different things we could try, Sister Act being one of them, of what they wanted to make into a stage show. Sister Act is an old story in some ways. It’s kind of like Some Like It Hot or Ball of Fire where someone is on the run, a fish out of water, and I knew right away that this was a great story.
CHERI: One of the reasons why Sister Act seemed like a fun story was – we had the whole Disney catalog to look at, the Buena Vista list of films that they had made and were considering, but Sister Act sang out for music. When you’re making a musical, you want to know why it sings, and this one was easy. But looking to adapt this from what was in the film, which was set in the ’90s and used girl group music from the ’60s, we moved it into the disco era because that’s what we wanted to see. Alan wanted a musical era that hadn’t been heard on a Broadway stage so we thought it would be really fun to play with.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in going from film to stage?
CHERI: This is really a Michelle question. And that’s because on film you have this thing called a close-up. So when you’ve got everybody dressed in black and white and all you can see is their tiny little faces – no hair, no fingers, no feet – all you have are these faces. In film, you can use it, but it’s a huge challenge on the stage. And it was a remarkable accomplishment to take all of those women who are covered from head to toe and make them dance.
MICHELLE: The interesting thing in experiencing this is you choreograph first for those who don’t have those costumes on and you hope it’s going to read once you get on stage, because, as you can see, everything’s hidden. So you can’t really see what the bodies are doing unless there is exaggeration. So you have to make sure to use a lot of arm movements because a lot of the footwork is not going to be seen. And like Cheri said, in TV and film, you can get away with that by having the camera see what the audience wants to see. But on stage, everything is present for you so you’ve got to really make sure that you choreograph so that everybody is able to convey that physicality without all the costumes.
BILL: I think the challenge is always casting, casting, casting. And we had a fantastic cast.
Q: Were you unable to acquire the rights to use “My Guy” or did you just choose not to?
BILL: Well, when you have Alan Menken, who writes really good original music, you sort of go with that.
CHERI: Before Alan was on the project, we had talked about creating a kind of hybrid musical like Jersey Boys, where you have some book songs and also go back to things like “My Guy,” “I Will Follow Him,” the songs you remember from the film. But after Alan came in and we moved it into the disco era, it seemed like it wanted to sing a different story.
Q: Was there any material that you created for the process that got cut and how did you feel about that?
CHERI: That’s a dangerous question! If you saw it in Pasadena in 2006, if you saw it in Atlanta, if you saw it in London, if you saw it in Hamburg, Germany, you saw every word that Bill and I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote over six years. Very late in the game, when it came here from across the pond, from London to New York, certain people brought their friends in and certain changes got made. There’s an old joke we used to tell at Universal Studios. Everything you love, we wrote. Everything you didn’t love we had nothing to do with.
MICHELLE: I was telling Cheri earlier that there were some disjointed parts of the script that our lovely director made work through this process, but you could really feel the heart and you can see the little moments where different people’s ideas weren’t that cohesive for that moment. So it’s an interesting process to create that and make it come to the stage.
CHERI: The rule of thumb on Broadway is that it’s such a hugely collaborative process and it has so many moving parts, that the secret is that everybody is running the same show. And when we were all working together, that’s really what’s in play. When a new team comes in, sometimes administrations change, but the show stays the same.
BILL: Being a book writer is a most interesting thing, because people ask, “What does a book writer do?” And the answer to that is, “Everything except the music and the lyrics.” And they just stare at you and say: “Uhhhh, what else is there?” What happens is, you’re writing a really good scene and then the lyricist and the composer will say, “Wow! That would make a great song!” and then it’s no longer our scene. The great thing about this is that you don’t have to know a lot about music, which I don’t, and yet, a part of a great musical like this is that I get to have a free ride with my name alongside those of Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.
Q: How did “Take Me to Heaven” start? Was it disco or gospel first?
CHERI: Disco. But in the film, “My Guy” became “My God” and then there was “I Will Follow Him” – so we were looking to create pieces that could look like they were part of their original vernacular and then switch over to gospel, going from the profane to the sacred.
Q: Are there any fun stories about how some of the jokes made it into the show?
CHERI: Let me tell you the story of a song. About the time that we were conceiving this version of Sister Act, our daughter was in grade school and she was singing in her elementary school chorus. She has a big, loud voice and her choir teacher told her to take it down, “We sing as a group,” she said, “sing quietly, we don’t want to hear you sticking out.” And our daughter, who is a pistol, said, “Well, why doesn’t everybody else sing louder?” We were so proud of her for saying that, and so impressed, that we took that idea and wrote it into the script, and that became “Raise Your Voice.” For me, “Raise Your Voice” is the most stirring, fun, and happy song in the show, and part of that is because of all of those layers of resonance. Another is “I Could Be That Guy,” where the three thugs come on to the sisters, Glenn Slater said that there was a song called “Float On” by the Floaters that is so dirty and so suggestive that if we used it, we could never get away with it. So we said, “Let’s just try it. If we could see it done just once, it would be so funny.” And it became “Lady With a Long Black Dress.” We were so happy that that one survived.
Q: When you create a scene and you love it and think it works, if it gets cut, how do you accept it and not be upset?
CHERI: There was a musical called Mack and Mabel in which Bernadette Peters sings a song: (sings) “Time heals everything…” We wait, we grieve over the loss like that of a phantom limb, and then we cash the check. But we love our babies. Oftentimes, it’s not as bad to have someone kill your darlings as it is to have to kill your own darlings. So, yes, if you love it so much and it gets taken away from you, it’s like a phantom limb.
BILL: We worked in television for a number of years and I will watch one of our shows 25 years later and I’m still rewriting stuff. It’s painful, but if you can’t get over it, get out of the business.
CHERI: We were sitting in the back row today and are still rewriting things in our heads.
Sister Act concludes its run at the Kavli Theatre this Sunday, April 30. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.