The New York Times - 5/12/96

-Alvin Klein

Nuns Who Make People Laugh

Why should Dan Goggin care about the condescenders who say no to “Nunsense"? Or more precisely, "The Nunsenses” – I, II and III? As the creator of the wildly popular song and dance show and its spinoffs, he’s made millions and he's made millions laugh. Indeed, Mr. Goggin is the epitome of the winner who laughs last – all the way to the bank, as the old saw goes – knowing in his heart that he’s lifted the human spirit and rescued theaters from bankruptcy.

No kidding. "We’ve saved 12 theaters across the country. They have beckoned and we have come,” Mr. Goggin said, not counting Seven Angels in Waterbury where “Nunsense” makes predictably periodic appearances, not so much to prevent the place from shutting down as to guarantee that it will remain open.

And that's as it should be. After all, Seven Angels, regarded by many as the least known among Connecticut's professional theaters, was founded by Semina De Laurentis in her home town six years ago.

Ms. De Laurentis was the original Sister Mary Amnesia in the 1985 Off Broadway production of “Nunsense," a musical revue devoted to nuns who cut up, do stand-up and other strange things, and who just want to break into show business.

In the show, it is all precipitated by a fund-raising event for the burial of 4 nuns out of 52 who died of botulism after gulping vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia Child of God. Forty eight nuns had a proper burial but money ran out because the Mother Superior went over budget on a VCR. Hence, the benefit – and it’s a rush act because the remaining dead sisters are in the freezer and the health inspector is on the way.

The original “Nunsense” production, which evolved from a cabaret show in Greenwich Village. had its run extended from four nights to 38 weeks, cost $150,000 ($2.6 million has been paid to 25 investors so far, Mr. Goggin said) and spawned more than 5,000 stagings in 26 languages "in every country in the world, including Japan, but not in China or in Russia,” Mr. Goggin said. "India is coming up.”

The Off Broadway run lasted 10 years, its final year given over to alternating performances of “Nunsense" and its sequel, "Nunsense II,” which has itself grossed $20 million worldwide over the last two years.

“Nunsense” has played in theaters ranging from 199 seats (the Douglas Fairbanks Theater in Manhattan) to 4,800 seats in West Point where the box office take was $75,000 for one performance. The national tour had its highest grossing week – $367,000 - at the Bushnell in Hartford in 1990. Thus, when Ms. De Laurentis opened Seven Angels, “Nunsense” was the preordained opener, even though Ms. De Laurentis said she was “striving to establish a true bona fide regional theater of quality.”

Since then, Seven Angels has produced other small popular revues and a smattering of serious new plays, most notably “The Crimson Thread,” by Mary Hanes, "Twice Blessed” by Art Metrano and Cynthia Lee, and “Before You Go,” by Jim McGinn. "And Nunsense I or II, weaving in and out,” Ms. De Laurentis remarked.

And now it’s "Nonsense III,” otherwise known as “Sister Amnesia’s Country Western Nunsense Jamboree,” which opened on April 11 in Waterbury, where its run has been extended through June 9. After a three-week hiatus, when the show and the set move to Montclair, N.J., ”Nunsense III" is to return to Connecticut for a summer's run.

In its latest incarnation, Sister Mary Amnesia (Ms. De Laurentis, once more) is on a promotional tour for her new country western album, "I Could Have Gone to Nashville.”

"It’s a cross between ‘Lagh-In’ 'Hee Haw" and ‘Grand Ol' Opry.’ Real high energy – with 25 new songs,” Mr. Goggin said. "We have a stable, a chicken coop, a country fiddling nun, two new characters and the band is in the barn.” Mother Superior couldn't attend, but she’s keeping tabs on everything by phone – and Mr. Goggin added, “We’re lucky to have Rue McClanahan's voice on tape.

Sample "Nunsense III" lyrics: "If Stephen Sondheim is uptown perfume/We’re down-home cologne.” Or how about “We hope you all brought some butter/We all brought the corn."

Yes, but what about overkill? His own mother, who lives in Michigan recently asked. “You don’t care if I don’t see it this time, do you?"

"I think overkill all the time,” Mr. Goggin said. “What if they don’t want it next year? What if it runs itself out? But people say it never will. They're going to like it forever. And now theaters are starting to do ‘Nunsense I’ again.”

And then there are the Nunsense groupies. “One night in Waterbury, a group said, ‘This is our ninth time’,” Mr. Goggin said. “It never ceases to amaze me,"

Speaking from his home in Garrison, N.Y. – the “house that Nunsense bought” – he said, “We once got a letter about 102 sisters from an order in Canada who were in the hospital after salmonella poisoning, so life is imitating art, not that we call 'Nunsense’ art, It’s just total light-hearted entertainment.”

He went on: “Every night somewhere, someone is laughing during 'Nunsense' and people tell us, ‘You have brought this gift to us.’ Pat Carroll keeps coming back to the role of Mother Superior in one production or another, saying, ‘I need my Nunsense fix.'*

"Nothing compares to hearing people laugh,” Mr. Goggin continued, “And then maybe they’ll come back to the theater. The show is so user friendly – silly corny lunacy – when you’re laughing, even if it’s only for 30 seconds, you’re not hurting, you’re not homeless, you’re just laughing.”

And a slew of actresses are members of the "Nunsense” performing pool: Alice Ghostley, Dody Goodman, Phyllis Diller, Peggy Cass, Pudgy, Kaye Ballard and Lainie Kazan among them.

"Some people think it’s fluff and worthless," Mr. Goggin said, "it is fluff but it ain't worthless.”

“Because of ‘Nunsense’," Ms. De Laurentis said, "we see people developing as theatergoers. These shows are bringing them in,” She emphasized how the formulaic can pave the way for the brave new work.

“Someone said if you survive five years, you’re on your way," she said. "The other years have been difficult but this one has been successful. We’ve tripled our subscription base – from 500 to 1,500 in one season,”

Ms. De Laurentis continued: “I entered this naively – just loving theater and thinking I could do something wonderful in Waterbury. This is an industrial town that lost its industry – it was the brass center of the world – and it’s finding its way again. I had no idea what this all meant.”

“What has it all meant?*’ Ms. De Laurentis was asked.

"That it was all meant to be," she answered.